Brett Walker feels passionately about wolves and even more passionately about feelings. His book recounts the history of Japan's predacious canines, a history that ends with their extermination during the Meiji Restoration. Yet he wants to do more than survey the carnage that modernization wrought. He wants to resurrect wolves as active participants in the history of their demise, and emotions supply the jolt that brings them back to life. While careful not to anthropomorphize the beasts, Walker urges readers to accept a bedrock assumption: Animals think and feel. They resemble us, and eradicating them is insensible when we grant this common ground of sentiment.

Walker knows the precariousness of the terrain he has entered. In the past, critics have howled when writers have conjured up the emotional lives of animals, labeling them “nature fakers.” Ernest Thompson Seton, the author of animal stories such as “Lobo: King of the Currumpaw,” earned a reprimand from U.S. president Theodore Roosevelt for his portrayal of sentient wolves, rabbits, and crows. More recently, environmental historians have been accused of letting their emotions get the best of their narratives. Their stories, some charge, tend to begin in harmony, balance, and peace and devolve into ruin, chaos, and death. Walker invokes animal feelings and offers a “declintionist” narrative. That is the thrill of this book: watching a double offender try to avoid the methodological traps he sets for himself.

Compared to colonial North America, early modern Japan was indeed a lupine paradise. In America, livestock owners trapped, shot, and tortured wolves. They hid mackerel hooks in balls of tallow to puncture their stomachs. They sliced their hamstrings and encouraged giant mastiffs to kill them for fun. In Japan, farmers venerated wolves. They made offerings to the “large-mouthed pure gods” to protect their grain fields from wild boars and deer. The predators were divine messengers and appeared often in Japanese and Ainu folklore. In 1687, Tokugawa Tsunayushi, the “Dog Shogun,” forbade his subjects to kill or torment canines. As the law suggests, Japanese hunters did pursue wolves as quarry, but the geographic, religious, and agricultural meanings surrounding the animals tinged their deaths with anxiety and awe. Wolves symbolized mountains and the “other world”; they were Shinto deities and belonged to the Buddhist “continuum of life.” People might kill them, but neither the Japanese nor the Ainu on Hokkaido considered wolves to be soulless beasts.

Wolves' sanctity began to wane before the Meiji period. In the eighteenth century, a rabies outbreak added a splash of menace to the wild canines' reputations. Sick wolves behaved erratically and bit people. Humans responded by attacking the wolves. Communities organized grand hunts. Men from all classes gathered at an appointed place and time and encircled a patch of woods. Someone blew a conch, and they advanced toward the center, driving the wolves before them. Still, while these hunts did destroy wolves, they also served as communal rituals. Performed during the first month of the new year, the drive bonded males and implied rebirth. Thus, at the dawn of industrialization, wolves' status was ambiguous. People loathed and feared them, but they also continued to place gifts to the animals' spirits at mountain shrines.

The offerings changed during the Meiji regime. Instead of rice and beans, ranchers left strychnine. In a bid to modernize Japan's agriculture, to raise more beef and horse flesh, the government (especially the Kaitakushi on Hokkaido) established a bounty system and imported expert wolf killers from the United States. By 1905, the wolves were gone.

The extinction of Japan's feral canines brings Walker to the “declintionist” splitting point. It is here, at the instant when the modern, the urban, and the industrial destroy the wild, that humans leave nature. Walker, however, wants to disrupt this storyline. Rather than alienation, he seeks reunion. Humans remain part of nature because they are animals, like wolves. Animals think, feel, and participate in history. Walker, of course, cannot access the emotional life of an extinct species. So he lays out several imaginative ways in which Japanese wolves participated in history. The wolves evolved. They ate, migrated, and reproduced. They howled. They adapted to changes in their environment. These processes and activities frequently upset human plans and categories. Japanese wolves, for example, mated with wild dogs, confusing the notion of clear species boundaries. On Hokkaido, wolves “modernized” along with their human persecutors. They switched to eating horses when harsh winters and human hunting pressure decimated their previous food supply—the island's deer. Japanese wolves perished, but their lives resonate in history like howls from a distant mountaintop.

Inventive and heartfelt, The Lost Wolves of Japan is the kind of book many historians declare they will write when they earn tenure. But it is easy to say that you will be bold in the future. Walker actually keeps the promise.