John and Mary Theberge: Natural leaders

John and Mary Theberge

Credit: Jeff Kirk

– As told to John Hassell

Until he retired in 2000, John Theberge was a professor with the Faculty of Environmental Studies at the University of Waterloo. John’s co-researcher and wife, Mary Theberge, is a wildlife illustrator and educator. The Theberges are Ontario’s leading experts on wolves and wolf conservation. Their most recent book, The Ptarmigan’s Dilemma, is a finalist for the Writers’ Trust Non-Fiction Prize.

As wildlife biologists, we have spent most of our adult lives saying that science is a means to better understand and ultimately appreciate the rich diversity of life on earth – the amazing result of nearly four billion years of evolution. As educators, we have tried to spread the word about the high cost of our consumption habits. We believe that living in a sustainable way begins with an inquisitive mind searching for an understanding of the workings of the natural world.

Every spring, we record bird songs as we paddle our canoe down Ontario’s South River. We hear longer and longer pauses between songs, which we believe is indicative of the loss of bird abundance and diversity. Ontario is scarred by widespread habitat loss and degradation, and over 200 species are now at risk.

An ecological price tag is attached to everything we do, yet people often don’t realize this. In a rural area near Kitchener- Waterloo, we spoke with a property owner who was upset because he no longer heard frog calls after he had logged his wetland which had caused the water table to drop. He told us that, had he realized the implications of logging, he wouldn’t have done it. Understanding how nature works will increase our love of nature and make us better stewards of it.

Our manicured lifestyle – for example, being able go into shops in climate-controlled malls that have everything we could possibly want – gives us a false sense of security. But the writing is on the wall: our economic systems have repeatedly failed to protect us. We are undervaluing ecosystem services, and that’s leading to their rapid degradation. We owe future generations a better legacy than that.

When we were growing up, we were able to drink water directly out of the lakes and rivers. We can’t do that anymore. We had easy access to nature through our schools, families and youth groups. The wonder of nature starts at an early age and is an instinct that grows when encouraged. Too often, however, it is suppressed by a lack of access to nature at home and school, so much so that kids are suffering from nature deficit disorder. More than ever we need organizations like Ontario Nature, with its Nature Guardians program, to create opportunities for kids to wonder about and explore their natural environment.

Young people today need the kinds of experiences we had. Early in our relationship, we went on a trip to Algonquin Provincial Park with only some felt sleeping bags and no tent, hoping it wouldn’t rain, which it did, of course. But we didn’t leave and were rewarded by the appearance of several majestic wolves as the sun poked through the mist.

We consider Algonquin Provincial Park our home ecosystem, having spent more time there than anywhere else, studying and tracking wolves. We followed in the footsteps of our mentor Dr. Doug Pimlott, then a professor of zoology at the University of Toronto. Doug was a great organizer and internationally recognized biologist. He was also a leading researcher on wolves in Algonquin until he ran afoul of the government for his efforts advocating on their behalf.

Big carnivores are integral to the Canadian identity and serve a critical role in our ecosystems through trophic cascade. Yet, in a misguided effort to protect caribou, the government of British Colombia is practising wolf control. This is mind boggling when, at the same time, millions of dollars are being spent on wolf reintroduction programs in Yellowstone Park – which straddles Wyoming, Montana and Idaho – after wolves were extirpated there. How much do we need to fragment and degrade our wolf populations before we value them?

When we were researching wolves in Algonquin, we would fit the animals with electronic collars so that we could track them. Sometimes we ended up knocking on the doors of hunters’ houses, where we’d find the collars in garages and basements, along with the carcasses. Other times, we found wolves with their heads nearly severed. The biggest threat to wolf survival is people. Experience shows that isolated islands of protected areas do not adequately protect these animals because they roam across such great distances. Thankfully, after five years of lobbying in partnership with the conservation community, in 1993 we were able to get the government of Ontario to establish a no-kill zone around Algonquin Park where wolves normally range, which we believe is the first of its kind in North America. We have since proposed a more ambitious agenda of increasing the four percent that is protected to 15 percent (see www.wolfstudies.ca).

Our new book, The Ptarmigan’s Dilemma, is an exploration of the ways life adapts, persists and is able to organize itself. The book reviews the dynamics of ecology and evolution for the layperson. Life on earth is resilient and will last for another billion years, but we risk losing our place here and are already impoverishing our descendents. In some places in the Arctic, caribou and whales are laced with carcinogens and other toxins. We are the only species that has the intellectual ability to look into the future and understand the need to adjust our lifestyles. We hope that people will get motivated to do so before it is too late.

Doomsday scenarios have not led us toward a sustainable model, and many politicians, seemingly immune to facts, still talk of endless growth. We need to support the development of emotional connections with nature and ultimately become stewards rather than masters. Jean Chrétien doubled the national park system in Canada. When we asked him the secret to his success, he replied, “I just did it.” So that’s the key! We need to strengthen people’s ties with nature through science and make the rest happen.

12 Comments

  1. Laura Brennan Laura Brennan
    July 1, 2011    

    From the age of 1 year my parents took myself and my 3 brothers camping, and I mean camping, not RVing. We visited most of the provincial parks in Ontario back in the late 50’s and 60’s. As a result I passed on the same experience from the same young age to both of my children. As a result they both camp every year at least once. We all have a deep love and respect for our beautiful country, parks,and wildlife as a result. I am passing this on to my 4 yr. old granddaughter now. We need to all experience these areas and broaden them and decrease the amount of urbanization as much as possible. We took over the habitats of the birds and animals so we need to take care of them. Every child should be given these experiences because the effects are life long.

  2. ontarion ontarion
    August 8, 2011    

    Thanks for sharing that anecdote Laura. It rings true for me as well and I completely share your analysis.

    John Hassell, Ontario Nature

  3. Gaylen Armstrong Gaylen Armstrong
    October 17, 2011    

    Having a lot of difficulty connecting with John Theberge. We worked together back in 1965 when he was beginning his research into wolves on Baffin Island. Much appreciated if you would forward this to John including my e-mail address or send me his e-mail. Whichever works. Thanks, Gaylen

  4. ontarion ontarion
    November 14, 2011    

    Thanks for the post Gaylen Armstrong. We just forwarded your e-mail address.

  5. October 20, 2012    

    Hi- I am the President of the Timber Wolf Preservation Society in Greendale Wi. I just watched the video “The Language of Wolves”, and was so impressed with John and Mary and their concern and realistic sensitivity to the wolf. We are the oldest wolf preserve in the nation- 45 years. Our founder (JIm Rieder-passed away in 2001) claimed that we had the purest gene pool of Eastern Timber Wolf, anywhere in the world. I was wondering if you could help us by telling us where there is a laboratory that could get genetic testing of our wolves. If you view our website, our wolves look different than any we have seen. I understand if you feel I have over-stepped your boundaries, but would greatly appreciate any help you could give us.- Thank you

  6. Tracey Gallant Tracey Gallant
    December 2, 2012    

    I am a resident of Chisholm Township, one of the ‘no hunt’ protected townships surrounding Algonquin Park and am distressed to learn that my municipality is actively lobbying to have the hunt of wolves and coyotes re-instated.
    I read the Theberge’s wolf book and it dramatically changed the way I looked at our local wolves and my/their environment. I tried to click on the wolfstudies.ca link above but only rec’d an error message.
    I am trying to research information so that I may be better informed as to whether my local council is making the best decision or not. Any help would be appreciated.

  7. December 3, 2012    

    Thanks for your post and the work you’re doing Tracey. You are right that the website is no longer active. I forwarded your e-mail to the Theberges to let them know and hopefully get in touch with you. Best, John

  8. Bob Coffee Bob Coffee
    February 22, 2013    

    I live in Cobourg ON. In the past couple of days, I have taken some photos of what I believe might be a red wolf. I can send these photos to John or Mary if they are interested.I just watched their show on Animal Planet and realized what I may have seen. He is such a beautiful, healthy creature.The photos are in a swampy wooded area right behind my house, part of the Ganaraska watershed.
    Thanks, I’ll await a reply Bob

  9. ann fox ann fox
    February 23, 2013    

    Protecting wolves, coywolves, coydogs in the wild is one thing…I dislike snaring, leg hold traps, helicopter shooting ..they should be protected from this bullshit! BUT our Ministry has been lying to us for yrs saying these crosses do NOT exist (I have emails). What is happening to these animals? Something very serious…DOG EATING DOG. Wolves & coyotes used to be enemies now they run together. There are some domestic dogs around here running with a wolf pack. Why do they eat some dogs & not others? I have asked these questions to many wolf sites…NEVER an answer! There are so many livestock strikes around here..one of my horses…lost my little dog…still looking for her head..countless cats killed…I am not over this…when I see the tracks outside …like now…I panic….& run out to check my horses….I am sick of this….

  10. December 21, 2014    

    Hopefully you will receive this email and forward my email address to the Theberges and ask them to get in touch with me, or you, John, can email me. Thank you. I am interested in their work.

  11. RAy Sarazin RAy Sarazin
    January 25, 2016    

    I also read Mr Theberge s book, and concerned for Wolves in Algonquin Park, also concerned about upcoming action toward them. There is a native land claim for eastern part of Algonquin park to which I can vote for and if anything I can do or say for these creatures I will.

  12. RAy Sarazin RAy Sarazin
    January 25, 2016    

    Also if the Theberge’s can contact me for needed advice it would be great thanks.

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