The extinction of an icon: A Look into the History and Cultural Ties of the Wolverine in Michigan Society

Post by Lindsay Buckhout

The Chicago Bears, the Pittsburgh Penguins, University of Michigan’s Wolverines. Since their creation, teams have utilized animals as symbols. They represent ferocity, swiftness, cunning and cruelty. Important factors when intimidating teammates, but what about the animal itself? In Michigan, the wolverine has been used as an icon to represent an overall level of “meanness” as both sports mascots and our state mammal. Local Michigan legend claims that the use of the symbol was coined by Ohioans in the War for Toledo, where Michiganders were noted as being “wolverine-like in behavior” when fighting over the disputed strip of land (Absolute Michigan 2006). However, the first myths surrounding the elusive wolverine date back to indigenous legend. It is important when utilizing any symbol to understand it’s background and history. The same is true for Michigan’s use of the wolverine; the historic extinction and consequential downfall of the furry creature is a bloody, depressing tale. I hope to bring awareness or caution to how we use things as symbols in this post, and propose an idea for how to move forward with education.

Photo of an adult wolverine balanced on a log, courtesy of Michael Ninger / Shutterstock.
Photo of a wolverine, courtesy of Michael Ninger / Shutterstock.

Of all the Michigan stories I heard as a child, one has stuck with me for years; the story of Michigan’s last wolverine. She was first discovered in 2004 by a group of coyote hunters, and sparked a tidal wave of support, love, and interest from various groups statewide. She was tracked mercilessly by local high school teacher Jeffery Ford for no other reason than devotion and curiosity, and I can still remember the wave of sadness that swept the state when her half frozen body was fished out of a beaver dam in 2010 (Shaw 2014). Michigan’s Last Wolverine is now stuffed and on display at the Capitol building (Krug 2013). As an avid animal lover even in my youth, I couldn’t help but think of how she died; alone, without any of her species within three hundred miles of her. Loved by many, yes, but unable to perform any basic interactions with her species. Unable to raise young, unable to find her way back to a safer area. Her lonely story weighs heavily on my heart. Now, Michigan’s Last Wolverine is slowly fading into yet another legend, joining the many stories about wolverine’s that have circulated history.

So, why does history matter? In other words, why are you reading about wolverines in Michigan on a scientific communication blog? A multi-faceted question with a variety of answers I’m sure, but what I hope to do is analyze this from the perspective of using animals as symbols. Cultural symbols, as defined by Omar Lizardo, are “motivated mappings between external form and cognitive meaning, used for both the private evocation of and the public externalization of those meanings” (Lizardo 2016). I like this definition a lot because it implies two things. First, two distinct but related objects have to have some externalization of meaning when representing each other. Secondly, there needs to be an internalized thought behind the connection, where each individual person can see the same symbol and think of the same external invocation. With the wolverine, the symbol it most often represents in current Michigan society is a tenacious, ferocious beast capable of destruction. That is one of the monikers it has been assigned for centuries. Utilizing the wolverine under this umbrella to stand for an entire state makes sense, if that is the behavior we wish to present. And yet many who acknowledge this symbolism have no idea of its background and historical meaning.

After a long, historic journey, we reach my final points at last; how to bring attention to this issue. Zoos have long been known for their educational outreach program, and I am currently working on a project designed to reach a local zoo in my hometown in order to call for better education on this topic. I am in the process of writing a research paper detailing the wolverine, the history of its extinction, and the continued use of it in modern society as a symbol. This paper will be sent to my chosen stakeholder, Binder Park Zoo, in an effort to call them to action, or at least introduce this idea, in the hopes that they will begin an education program or exhibit dedicated to the wolverine. After all, aren’t local animals important? We rely heavily on the wolverine as representative of our state, and so why would we not educate local animal lovers about its history? My goal is to bring attention to this issue without seeming like I am calling for a removal of the wolverine as a symbol in Michigan, but rather providing background information on how it can be an important lesson to learn.


Lindsay Buckhout is an undergraduate student from Michigan studying zoology and environment and natural resources at the University of Wyoming with an interest in the cultural ties between humans and animals.

references

Absolute Michigan. “Why We Are Called the Wolverine State.” Absolute Michigan, Absolute Michigan Http://Absolutemichigan.com/Wp-Content/Uploads/2013/03/Absolute-Michigan.png, 31 Aug. 2006.

Fritz Klug. “Michigan’s Last Wolverine, Now Stuffed, Visits Capitol during Statewide Tour.” Mlive, 12 Mar. 2013.

Lizardo, Omar. “Cultural Symbols and Cultural Power.” Qualitative Sociology, Springer US,

Apr. 2016, https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s11133-016-9329-4.

Shaw, Elizabeth Philips, and Jeffrey J. Ford. Lone Wolverine: Tracking Michigan’s Most Elusive Animal. University of Michigan Press, 2014.

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