It finally happened… not that we wanted it to, but it was inevitable. North american wolves killed a human. These weren’t captive or hybrid wolves—healthy wild wolves killed a 22-year old Canadian man. In the following essay, we’d like to cover what happened, the implications, and where to go from here.
The incident occurred in Saskatchewan, Canada at Points North, an industrial settlement near Wollaston Lake. Kenton Carnegie, a 22 year old, third-year geological engineering student, was two weeks into a short-term contract with Sander Geophysics. The CBC (Canadian Broadcasting Corporation) reported, “Friends and family described him as a free spirit who loved music and enjoyed being an artist as he pursued his dream of becoming an engineer.”
While only a couple dozen people consistently populate Points North, located 270 miles north of La Ronge and 150 miles shy of the Northwest Territories border, a bustling frontier atmosphere pervades the camp that serves as a logistical hub. Tons of supplies are trucked to Points North’s dirt landing strip and then flown to remote mining outposts. Hundreds of workers pass through the settlement on their way to an isolated mine or on their way home from one. As is often the case in the resource extractive industries, the work force consists of itinerant workers who live in the area on a part-time basis; Points North is not a close-knit community. All those people passing through produce tons of garbage that ends up in an unlicensed, unfenced, and unattended dump about half a mile from the camp on Ministry Land. “We’ve been working with Points North for several years now trying to bring that landfill into compliance,” said Deputy Environment Minister Lily Stonehouse. Many of the region’s mining settlements either incinerate or secure garbage in a landfill surrounded by electric fencing, but not Points North.
Reports differ as to the events leading up to Kenton’s death. The CBC stated, “The day before he died, he called his mother. He said there had been wolves spotted in the area, although he had not seen one himself. Among the documents CBC obtained from the Environment Department is a set of photographs showing wolves in close proximity to people around Points North—taken by Carnegie’s co-workers a few days before he died. One picture shows a tan and black wolf staring at a man with a stick a few metres away. Others show curious wolves standing their ground with little apparent concern for the man with the camera a stone’s throw away.” Kenton’s father, Kim, maintains serious doubts that his son was warned about the potential danger presented by the habituated wolves. He’s also upset that early reports portrayed Kenton as feeding wolves or striving to be close to them. “He wasn’t out there trying to sketch them or feed them, as some articles might have implied, he was just going for a walk,” his father said. “He loved nature and wanted to go look at the rocks in the bay.”
In contrast, Outdoor Life (OL) stated that a couple of days prior to the attack, Kenton and a friend encountered wolves while on a hike and photographed them at close range. Kenton was “curious but decidedly uneasy about their proximity.” On November 6th, according to OL Kenton and his buddy showed the photos to half a dozen men in the mess hall. Writing for OL, Andrew McKean quoted trucker Bill Topping, “I told him he was lucky to be alive. I told him these wolves up here are hungry and they don’t fear people. They thought it was something to be that close to wolves.”
A few questions arise:
- Did Kenton seek an encounter with wolves? If so, who could honestly blame him; most of us feel excited about getting close to wildlife. But it is a factor.
- If the Outdoor Life account is accurate, did Topper express his warning to Kenton in a condescending or alarmist manner? Did Topper see Kenton as one of the ivory tower academicians that lacked common sense? Did Kenton inwardly roll his eyes at Topper and the other workers when he heard their big bad wolf stories? In other words, did an educational caste system create a communication barrier?
- The photo of the man with the stick standing a few feet from the wolf would indicate that people engaged in a game of ‘See-how-close-I-can-get’ to the Points North garbage dump wolves. Is this the case?
On November 8th at around 5:30 p.m., while daylight still lingered outdoors, Kenton informed his field supervisor that he was headed out on a walk and would return before dinner. Two hours later, a search party found his body.
In the CBC report, according to Rosalie Tsannie, the provincial coroner for the north, tracks in the snow tell the following story: “When he was about a kilometer away from the camp, on the edge of a frozen lake, a wolf appeared, following Carnegie’s footsteps through the snow. Carnegie must have become aware of it—the snow pattern showed he quickened his pace. One or two wolves moved in from the side, as the first wolf tracked him from behind,’ Tsannie said. ‘I believe he saw this wolf behind him. That’s when he thought he would have been in trouble and started running. And just shortly after that, about seven feet from there or less, the first scuffle happened, and there’s about five [sites of scuffles] that led to the point where the men had discovered his body.’ It was getting dark when searchers found his remains. The wolves were still there, close to the body, so the men retreated and called the RCMP.”
How should the pro-wolf community react to Kenton’s death? To begin with, we dispense with the “No-healthy-wild-wolf-in-North-America” sound byte. No wait a minute, we could add more qualifiers: “No healthy, wild, unhabituated wolf has ever killed a human in North America.” And we can continue from there: “No healthy, wild, unhabituated wolf, with a pleasant disposition and positive attitude has ever killed a human in North America unless he or she deserved it.”
We need to face up to the fact that wolves killed a human. Should we seek to render Kenton’s death less shocking by hedging or offering excuses for the wolves? Wolf advocates have tended to rally round the fact that the Points North wolves were habituated. Nevertheless, the fact remains that something the pro-wolf community continually cited as having never happened, has happened—wolves killed a person. It can happen, it did happen. Granted, habituation plays a major role in this case. But habituated wolves are part of the equation now and given the current state of things, their numbers will increase.
No, we don’t make excuses for wolves or add more qualifiers. We do however continue to investigate, explore, learn, and educate. Why did the wolves kill Kenton, was the event an anomaly? Should we be alarmed? Is it time to fear wolves?
We know the Points North wolves fed extensively at an unfenced garbage dump. But did people also leave food out in order to observe the wolves, were the animals virtually hand fed? A wolf habituated with garbage and food left out by workers attacked a boy in an Alaska logging settlement. In the case of the Alaskan boy and Kenton, the victim played no role in the habituation process; nevertheless they paid dearly for the carelessness of others. And in both cases, wolves ended up dead.. Habituation of wildlife leads to trouble and, most often, the death of the habituated animal. It doesn’t matter if it’s a deer, raccoon, wolf, marmot, or bear, they’re wild animals and we need to treat them with respect and caution. If only for their own safety, wild animals need to be wary of humans. Granted, in the Garden of Eden, Adam and Eve walked with the animals and that was a beautiful thing. But we’re not in the Garden anymore, some changes have occurred since then.
Far too many people believe that if they love an animal, it will love them back. Timothy Treadwell of grizzly bear fare comes to mind, as does the photographer who thought the Glacier National Park grizzly bears he photographed could sense that he would use the photos for their welfare. A mother grizzly killed him and in his final photos, you can see all the classic warning signs of a bear cautioning him to BACK OFF! before she charged. For such people, the animal becomes a mirror that reflects the needs, wants, and desires they project on it. Believing that an animal will reciprocate the love you feel for it may occur with dogs—but it certainly doesn’t occur with wildlife. This romanticized perception of nature proves especially dangerous when projected on large species, be they wolves, bears, or Bambi.
The following are three simple guidelines regarding wolf habituation recommended by the International Wolf Center:
- Do not feed wolves. Do not leave food outdoors, including pet food. Do not offer food to wolves from a vehicle or a residence.
- Do everything you can to avoid teaching wolves to not fear people. Do not let wolves get close to you, and do not let them learn to be comfortable in human-inhabited areas.
- Report wolves that seek human food or frequent human areas to wildlife officials. Do not take the law in your own hands. Wildlife officials can teach problem wolves to avoid humans and, if necessary, kill animals that cause severe problems.
Should we fear wolves? No, not if we maintain a sense of perspective. Wolves have not been nor are they about to become the marauding savage killers of folklore, fairy tale, legend, and story. “Mr. Carnegie’s death is a terrible tragedy,” said wolf biologist Dave Mech, “but one fatal wolf attack in the recorded history of North America does not warrant widespread alarm.”
Extensive research turned up 26 incidents of nonfatal wolf attacks on this continent. Two common elements pertain to these attacks: a majority resulted in minor injuries and 80% (21 of the attacks) involved food-habituated wolves. Also interesting to note: all but five attacks occurred after 1970. During the past three decades, the wolf population has grown, human numbers have increased dramatically, and the wildland-urban interface spreads ever outward as people continue to transform wildlands into backyards, homes, and gardens. “These were habituated garbage eating wolves,” said Ed Bangs who coordinates the gray wolf recovery effort in the northern Rockies for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife. “Wild wolves do their damnedest to stay away from people.”
So what’s to be done? “How can humans and wolves coexist in increasingly human-dominated landscapes?” wrote wolf biologist Diane Boyd. “The conundrum is that we have managed wolf recovery so successfully that conflict situations arise more frequently. The challenge is to avoid creating public fear of wolves, yet paint a realistic picture of wolf behavior.” We can accomplish this through education coupled with action.
- Place the unfortunate death of Kenton in a broader perspective: 22 wolf attacks (this included the North Point incident) spread over three-and-a-half decades, one of which resulted in the death of a human, do not constitute a threat.
- Don’t fall into the trap of defending very bold or aggressive wolves: wolves are predators and people are constantly blundering into what should be, but hasn’t been until recently, harm’s way. What’s amazing is that wolves haven’t killed people prior to this, and done so with impunity.
- Follow the three guidelines previously listed. If you see people habituating wolves, explain to them the error of their ways. (And in doing so, don’t hop on a soapbox and admonish them. The goal is impart knowledge and gain an ally.)
- Inform those living in or about to inhabit the urban/wildland interface the importance of securing garbage, fencing gardens, and not leaving pet food outdoors where it will attract wildlife. It’s not a case of wildlife moving down into the backyards of people, it’s people that built houses in the front yards of wildlife.
- Report habituated wolves to the proper authorities.
- Adopt legislation that penalizes people who flagrantly habituate wolves.
- Wildlife managers should work with writers and the media to spread word about the jeopardy we place wildlife in when we habituate them.
- Steve Grooms, writing for the International Wolf Center, pointed out: “We might need to introduce a limited amount of aggression into wolf management plans. In other words, the price we must pay to have wild wolves in North America might be that we have to kill, trap, or at least seriously threaten wolves.”
The Biggest Hurtle
Finally, the most important and most difficult modification, we need a change in mindset. We humans are legion. You might recall the aphorism, “Subdue the earth and have dominion over it.” Well, we won—that challenge is long past. If we value and desire wildness, we’re obliged to safeguard what remains. Should we accept the role as sentries of wildness, we can’t expect a reciprocal return. Wolves, rivers, bears, mountains, banana slugs, glaciers, and trout—all things wild are not about to like us because we like them. In order to protect wildness, we need not anthropomorphize it—to do so denotes a level of possession. Wildness is the antithesis of ownership. Wildness is not a pretty picture in a book or a picnic in the park. Wildness is untamed whitewater, beautiful to gaze upon but deadly to swim. Wildness is the alpenglow on unnamed peaks from which avalanches plunge. Wildness contains butterflies, mosquitoes, black flies, mud, and the sweet vanilla scent of sun-baked ponderosa pine. Wildness is a fawn bounding through a meadow one minute and in the jaws of a mountain lion the next. Wildness is raw, real, dangerous, and absolutely spiritual. The most valuable contribution we can make to wildness, overall, is to leave it alone.
In terms of wolves, we won’t be able to act so idealistically because, in many places, we’re past the point of just leaving them alone. We’ve moved in among them and they’ve moved in among us. Wildness and civilization are about as easy to mix as oil and water. The question arises, which do we tip the scale in favor of, humans or the rest of life? The answer isn’t an easy ‘them or us’. It depends—we examine conflicts and seek solutions on a case-by-case basis by looking at possible causes, existing factors, and future implications. And in deciding, we might do well to ask ourselves, do we want to continue playing the domination game or are we ready to adopt the role of stewards to the creation we inherited?