When I began my research into St. Francis of Assisi for an interfaith seminary essay, I knew little of him beyond his designation as patron saint of ecology and the animals. I was curious how he became associated with animals and found a story about a wolf that intrigued me, especially in the context of wolf conservation challenges in the United States.
According to the tale, at the time St. Francis was living in the town of Gubbio in Italy, a wolf began attacking the livestock for food. After a while, there were also human encounters with the wolf and some humans were killed and eaten. Hunters failed to kill the wolf and people were afraid to be outside the city’s gates, especially alone. Gubbio’s human citizens were basically besieged.
Then Francis announced he would go out and meet the wolf. With a small group of followers, he left the city and went to the wolf’s lair. The wolf rushed at Francis, but on Francis’ command laid down.
Recognizing that the wolf was acting out of hunger, he promised that the people of Gubbio would feed him if he would stop attacking them and their livestock. The wolf placed a paw in Francis’ hand in agreement, then tamely followed Francis into the city. The people believed this was a miracle and followed Francis’ instructions to feed the wolf. During the two years before the wolf passed away, he went from door to door every day and was well fed. A church was built in St. Francis’ honor on the site where the wolf was buried. The wolf’s skeleton was found in 1872 during renovations and was reinterred in a place of honor inside the church.
I read the tale of Gubbio while I was feeling frustrated by the wolf hunts that were legalized just last year in the American West, for the purported purpose of protecting livestock. I wondered if a modern-day St. Francis could convince ranchers to feed the wolves instead, before decades of wolf reintroduction and recovery are undone and they disappear forever.