eographical studies of human-animal relations have for some time now focused on issues of conflict on the one hand and coexistence on the other. Within this field, coexistence denotes both a value and goal of wildlife management regimes and a theoretical approach that assumes a co-shaping of a shared, dwelt-in multispecies world. From a practical as well as a theoretical perspective, we may notice that not all animals are equal in the challenges they pose to coexistence. In particular, large predators (like wolves, bears, pumas) and other large mammals (elephants, rhinoceros, etc.) bring problems with them that other ‘troublesome’ species like beavers or cormorants do not. They may pose a threat to the lives and livelihoods of humans in addition to causing financial damage. In addition, large predators and large mammals may also, so we argue in this essay, pose an affective challenge to coexistence. Indeed, we understand ‘coexistence’ (or perhaps better, varieties of coexistence) to be affectively coloured, atmospherically charged. Coexistence does not come in ‘neutral’: for some it may be ‘peaceful’ , for others ‘fearful’. Animals themselves need to be acknowledged in this context as active agents in shaping this affective coexistence while being shaped by it at the same time.

In this essay, we draw on the example of wolves to show that an animal’s atmosphere (Lorimer, Hodgetts and Barua. 2017) is a serious dimension to take into account when it comes to understanding human-wildlife coexistence and conflicts. Some people claim that they cannot walk in the woods any longer, their children cannot play outside, their dogs are in danger of being killed and the state has to spend millions of Euros to mitigate this fear and protect people and their animals. This fear travels on the back of wolves reclaiming the former territories from which they had been extirpated for decades, if not centuries. Strikingly similar stories of wolves turning whole regions into landscapes of fear feature regularly in local news every week and seem to dominate European debates on this large predator. It seems fitting, then, that these debates often implicitly or explicitly take up the idea of an ecology of fear (Brown et al 1999) to describe the affective atmosphere of coexistence between wolves and prey animals and wolves and humans.

Originally a concept from behavioral ecology, recent researchers from neighboring disciplines have taken notice of ecology of fear, presumably because it promisingly gestures toward how humans and non-human animals dwell in a shared landscape (see Lorimer, Hodgetts and Barua 2017; Forssman and Root-Bernstein 2017). As yet, however, such endeavors remain sometimes limited to unidirectional understandings of fear as top-down, predator-to-prey – indeed not much of an ‘ecology’ at all. Furthermore, the ecology of fear is sometimes employed as a mere rhetorical figure that operates with a simplistic understanding of what fear might be. In this essay, we seek a critical engagement with the concept by laying the groundwork for turning this ecological concept into a refined transdisciplinary concept for the natural and social sciences that investigate animal atmospheres and human-animal coexistence.   

Our repurposing of ecology of fear thus has three aims. First, by pluralizing the directions that fear that travel across trophic levels (as opposed to merely predator-to-prey), we show how elements of fear are used by various species to co-shape the landscape in which dwellings are shared. Fear, hence, is used as an interspecies communication tool that involves ‘writing’ fear into the landscape for others to be ‘read’ (Boonman-Person, Turnhout and Carolan 2016). Second, we show how fear is about much more than an existential fear of one’s life being attacked, accommodating constituents of anxiety, vigilance and panic around co-existence. This in turn builds a foundation for a more nuanced depiction of the fear(s) associated with the wolf in rural communities, such that management tools can be developed to meet the genuine anxieties of local residents – which are not helped by being collapsed into fear-for-one’s-life. Third, our ecology of fear makes visible priorities and values held by local communities, insofar as it can tell us not only fear-of, but fear-for. In the end, our ambition is to deploy ecology of fear toward human-predator co-existence, using the wolf as a case context. In this undertaking, we draw on our extensive experience in researching this topic in the context of Fennoscandia (Erica von Essen) and Germany (Thorsten Gieser).

The concept of an ecology of fear emerges in the history of research in the behavioral ecology of predation. For decades, ecologists have explored the so-called ‘lethal effects’ of predators in the regulation of ecological systems. Predation has ‘density-mediated effects’, i.e. it impacts mortality rates and thereby population size of the prey species.  Ecosystems are thus considered to be regulated ‘top-down’ through the trophic levels of production. In regard to wolves, for example, this has led to the well-known hypothesis of ‘trophic cascades’, where predation is said to affect fitness of prey populations and even improve habitats in a top-down regulatory capacity (Ausilio et al. 2021). A different approach, however, now argues that primary production and their effects on herbivores regulates ecosystems ‘bottom-up’, with predators not having any significant impact on other species beyond occasional outtakes. More recent studies further complicate ecological modelling as top-down and bottom-up regulatory systems may be entwined and overlapping. We all affect one another, co-shape the landscape in which we dwell, and react to each other on both species and individual levels.

Moreover, the ecology of fear hypothesis is that the mere presence of a predator has an effect (that is, affect) on prey in the area. On this model, prey animals live a life in constant fear of ‘becoming-prey’, always vigilant and on the lookout for predators, avoiding or spending minimal time in high risk areas and seeking low risk areas, or aggregating in larger groups. This permanent affective state of prey animals (Tomasik 2015), such as the Wapiti deer reacting to the presence of wolves in Yellowstone National Park (Laundre et al 2001, Creel et al 2005, White et al 2012), is likely to have contributed to characterisations of nature as ‘red in tooth and claw’ (McLeod 2007). Nevertheless, in a more complex take (see e.g. Kuijper et al. 2013, 2015; Theuerkauf and Rouys 2008), predators do not uniformly exert a top-down fear on prey species. They can be victims of fear themselves. Certainly, counter-attacks by prey animals like moose or a pack of wild boars, show that interspecies communication of fear goes both ways. In addition to this, predators themselves may be subject to fear when, for example, wolves seem to shun roads and other anthropogenic structures in the landscape (Reinhardt and Kluth 2016).

Because ecology of fear hints at more complex pathways than predator-to-prey, we need to acknowledge the full complexity and multidirectionality of ecological relations: from animal predator to animal prey, from human predator to animal predator-prey (wolves), from human predator to animal prey (see e.g. the ‘hunting for fear’ idea, Cromsigt et al 2015), and perhaps even from animal predator (wolves) to human (prey in a broader sense). The latter dimension is especially often brought to the table by wolf sceptics. Although there have been no incidences of wolves harming a human being in Germany or Fennoscandia since they have returned in the 20th century (Linnell et al 2002), some people seem unsettled by the mere possibility. And wherever wolves appear for the first time, wolf sceptics claim that they turn the place into something that could be described as a landscape of fear (Laundre et al. 2001). This is true also of domestic landscapes that now suffer effects of predation on livestock. (Miller and Schmitz 2019). Here, research shows agitated domestic animals that change their behaviours and movements much like wild prey species do. These non-lethal effects of fear which extend to reproductive and metabolic stress, can also materialise and turn lethal, in the case of livestock aborting their foetuses following wolf attacks (Elofsson et al 2015).  

Acknowledging the multidirectional ecologies of fear, we now rethink our preconception of what we mean by fear as an affective state. For example, we suggest considering the common philosophical distinction between sudden bursts of fear (directed against a concrete object) from a more general feeling of continual (undirected) anxiety (Soentgen 2018). As mentioned before, scientists and scholars have registered doubt that prey animals live in a state of constant fear. But fear is, in fact, a multidimensional, ambivalent and dynamic state. Therefore, states of ‘being-prey’ may include a range of affective states (and transitions), from being-cautious and vigilant, to being-worried, to anxiety and fear or even panic.

These complexities are mirrored also in humans and their fear in relation to predators. Research shows that affective states of anxiety and stress in relation to loss of livelihoods, security or property may be enduring for residents in wolf territories (Bisi 2008). Few such residents ever physically encounter wolves. They may view and know wolves in terms of indices of various kinds left in ’beastly places’ and their mediated spaces: tracks, scats, howls on the one hand, and as stories, hearsay and rumors of their doings on the other hand (Mitchell 2018). Recent research from Sweden into stressors from living with large carnivores shows that local residents experience pangs of anxiety when they come across wolf indices such as tracks, scat, or howls (Sjölander-Lindqvist et al 2021). Some suggest that these anxieties are alarmist, dismissing narratives as those of ‘hysterical housewives’ (Hiedanpäa et al 2016). Further, in many instances, research indicates that the anticipations and expectations of the impact of wolves may be worse than the actual impact of wolves themselves (Theodorakea and von Essen 2016). In other cases, wolf attacks on livestock may leave devastating scenes for farmers who discover their sheep killed or maimed. Such disturbing experiences, of fear in the now, can then translate into a generalized feeling of anxiety that such an event has taken place, and may take place again.

An anticipatory climate of anxiety is a powerful substrate for fear. We have already noted how narratives of predator interactions, of particularly gruesome kills or fearful situations, infuse and reinforce wolf skeptic communities. These are not a mere discursive background but can materialize in physical practices that harness or amplify fear of wolves on collective levels and amounting to something like an ‘animal atmosphere’ (Lorimer, Hodgetts and Barua 2017): thus, night vigils to protect livestock, protests against large carnivore policy, and political slogans provide rallying points for individual fears to be pooled into a heightened, collective cultural fear. The opposite also holds true: generalized anxiety can operationalize into concrete individual fear. The hunter, when venturing out into the woods, may think he sheds societal baggage and exists as ‘a man, a gun, and his dog’ in the now. But he is besieged by sociocultural norms, expectations and internalized ideas (von Essen 2017). Thus a broader hunter peer community anxiety about wolves in the area will make him vigilant and even fearful. Hunters report carrying extra ammunition in case they encounter wolves (von Essen et al 2018). The hunting dog, too, may be a powerful mediator through which fear is sensed. Research highlights response-ability between a person and their dog (Peltola and Heikkilä 2015), to the point where an agitated dog in a wolf area puts the owner on edge, as an intermediary through which senses can be amplified. Equally, recent research from Sweden suggests that farmers internalise a sense of their animals’ insecurity when they observe their livestock becoming agitated when sensing wolves (Sjölander-Lindqvist et al., 2021, forthcoming). Hence, fear can be amplified through multiple, interspecies pathways.

This fear amplificatory processes operate also on vast timescales. Much of our anxiety about wolves stem naturally from a historical era in which the threat of wolves was truly existential to our lives. Anti-wolf measures suffused social organizations and sedimented in religions, taboos and national legislation in most parts of the world where wolves existed. These leave a potent cultural legacy on contemporary generations. While few people alive today in most wolf regions can claim to have any meaningful continuity with the anti-wolf measures of old (given wolves were largely extirpated in the 20th century), there often remain imprints of coping with, and deterring, wolves in contemporary cultures that we do not necessarily think about in these terms. Thus, for example, bonfire nights in the last of April in Sweden and Finland signal the scaring away of predators at a time when livestock was released for summer pasture (Tillhagen 1987). Fencing schemes, village infrastructure, and even place names all testify to a landscape of fear that was heavily preoccupied with warding off wolves as one of its principal architectural functions.

The third way in which ecologies of fear need to be nuanced to accommodate multidirectionality is by unpacking directions or prepositions of fear. Here, we argue that fear has a double phenomenological structure that encompasses both a fear-of (that which is threatening) and a fear-for (that which is threatened). When humans fear wolves, then, the reality of this is that shepherds fear for their sheep, hunters in Fennoscandia or Germany fear for their dogs (Ojalamnmi and Blomley 2015), and local residents fear for their lives. This shows that fear of discloses what matters to those involved, what they hold dear and value, in the preposition ‘for’. In other words, ecologies of fear are entangled with ecologies of care. Here, we draw on the double meaning of the German word for care, Sorge, which can mean either care (as a practice) or concern or worry, indicating that we care-for those or that we care-about. As shepherds care-for and about their sheep, they are concerned for them, worry about them and thus fear wolves.

Ultimately, we argue that fear is not necessarily an obstacle that can be removed in order to decrease conflicts but needs to be acknowledged as a dimension of human-wildlife coexistence. Most importantly, such animal atmospheres can serve us theoretically as a ‘thermometer’ of intensities of conflicts, interspecies dynamics and broader anxieties about rural livelihoods and lifestyles. We have shown that fear is also intertwined, indeed serving a lingua franca function, in the affective communication between species. Some practices are straightforward communication-by-deed (Martin & Varney, 2003) as when predators attack prey animals. Other communication uses fear by leaving traces in the landscape, everything from ‘messes’ left at carcasses from attacks, to olfactory, tactile or auditory repellents to deter animals from transgressing into areas or coming too close for comfort. The subsequent ‘reading’ of these material traces (Hinchcliffe et al. 2005) translate into various forms of fear and thereby affect responses of those involved. This means three things. First, that we view non-human animals as constitutive participants in cohabitation in landscapes and in management strategies. Second, that ecology of fear translated to the social sciences will be well served by attending to affective communication, as inscribed in and mediated through the physical landscape. Finally, that we can graduate beyond reductionist understandings of fear of wolves as being solely about violent attacks to their persons—in reality, fear is something much more subtle, yet also more encompassing and atmospheric, that operates on various scales, from the individual to species to landscape.


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Erica von Essen is an associate professor of environmental communication currently employed with Stockholm University. She works with human-wildlife relations and practices in modern society, from poaching, and wildlife tourism, to the new interactions we have with wild animals online.

Thorsten Gieser is Senior Researcher in the Departmentof Ecological Anthropology at the Czech Academy of Sciences. He is interested in human-wildlife relations, in particular hunting and wolves in Germany. Hisresearch on the return of the wolves to Germany was funded by the Volkswagen Foundation (Az. 96446).