Within the imagination, we conjure wonder and mystery as well as expectations of hope, terror, affection and fear. For many people, the wolf is a chimerical creature that stalks the imagination-a shape-shifter that lurks through one mind in the guise of a demon or as a saint in the mind of another.
“There’s never been a documented case of a healthy, wild wolf killing a human in North America.” If we received two bits for every time we’ve heard this overstated statement, we could buy all those North American wolves filet mignon. Nevertheless, we feel compelled to say it too, at least twice during the course of a Wild Sentry program.
Unfortunately, the “no healthy, wild wolf” sound byte is often misstated with the word “killing” replaced by “attacking”. This is not true. Wild wolves have attacked humans in North America. That’s why we always add, “This doesn’t mean that wolves have absolutely never killed a human or that they never will. After all, humans never cut a deal with wolves to leave us alone.” So how much danger do wolves pose to people? Should we steer clear of dark forests inhabited by wolves? Are the reasons given for aggressive wolves more an apologia than an explanation? Is it reasonable to think that wolves will eventually kill a human?
Bruce & Koani reenact folklore.
Before reviewing recent wolf attacks in North America, it should be noted that, outside of North America, wolves have killed humans. Tales about massive wolf packs devastating caravans of Russian troikas (as in Willa Cather’s My Antonia) are undoubtedly fiction. During their brief reign of terror in France from 1764 to 1767, the infamous Beasts of Gervaudan killed at least sixty-four people-but it’s been well established that these animals were hybrids not wolves. Most of the deaths blamed on wolves in southern and central Europe and in central Asia are attributable to hybrids or rabid wolves.
However, in the Indian state of Uttar Pradesh, from March to October 1996 and March to April 1997, a wolf or wolves killed or injured as many as seventy-four Indian children, almost all of them under the age of ten. The deaths occurred among children playing or relieving themselves on the outskirts of small villages. There were also reports of a wolf entering huts, though it sounds as if no children were harmed.
Recent Attacks in North America
In Ontario, Canada where thousands of people visit Algonquin Provincial Park-and many of them come to see or hear wolves-five people have been bit in the past twelve years. During August 1996, a wolf dragged 12-year-old Zachariah Delventhal from his sleeping bag. This particular wolf, prior to attacking Zachariah, had entered campsites and taken things such as a backpack, tennis shoe and other human items. As we’ve been in contact with the Delventhal family, we can let Zachariah describe what happened. He wrote the following in November 1996:
“The scariest night of my life… was the last night of a terrific 10-day camping trip at Algonquin Provincial Park in Ontario. We were exhausted and wanted to get out the next morning quickly so we decided to sleep under the stars. I remember dreaming that me, my mom, and my dad were walking through the woods. Then I felt pressure on my head and the woods started flying past. I awoke and still felt the pressure, but there was a new feeling of pain. I screamed, immediately the pressure released and the pain lessened. I opened my eyes-nothing but dark forest. I had been dragged six feet and I knew it was an animal mouth that did it. I yelled, ‘Something bit me!’ My mother came and held my sleeping bag to my face. Then my dad got up and started yelling. I got scared as he disappeared into the underbrush but he came back. I asked, ‘What was it?’ Then came two terrifying words, ‘A wolf.’ I immediately started to pull away from where I was dragged, I freaked. It was so scary and confusing at the same time. I didn’t want to get eaten by such a strong animal. As for confusing, think about this-I had been told wolves don’t attack people and here I was practically killed by one. My list of wounds is extensive. I had over 80 stitches to close the many cuts, my nose was broken in five places, I am missing a piece of my ear, my gums, and my tearduct and cheekbone were punctured. After all this, don’t be scared to go in the woods, don’t think of wolves as killers. The chances of getting attacked are so slim; I can’t get a hold of the fact that I was attacked. My parents were wrong when they said wolves don’t attack people, but wolves almost never do.”
Two years later, on September 25, 1998, another Algonquin wolf circled a little girl and despite blasts of pepper spray, didn’t leave until the child entered a trailer. Two days after that, a nineteen-month-old boy sat playing in the middle of camp, with his parents twenty feet away. The father thought he saw a dog emerge from the brush. He turned away for a moment and when he looked back, he saw his son in the jaws of a wolf. The wolf held the boy for a moment and then tossed him three feet. A local newspaper quoted the parents, “It wasn’t hit and run. He hit him [the infant] and then it was wait and see. He [the wolf] circled the picnic table a number of times before he was scared off enough to leave.” The infant received two stitches for minor injuries.
At the end of one of the articles about the Yakutat incident, reporters Elizabeth Manning and Craig Medred wrote, “In Canada, at least one person has been killed by wolves in the past 50 years. A 24-year-old woman was attacked by a pack of five at the Haliburton Forest and Wildlife Reserve in Ontario in 1996.” Had we not known about this incident, we would’ve come away believing that wild wolves killed the woman when in fact it was a captive pack. This is but one example among many, of how misinformation begets misperceptions that give rise to disproportionate fears.
On April 26, 2000, a six and nine year old boy cut down small trees as they played at being loggers on the outskirts of a logging camp near Yakutat in southeastern Alaska.
Upon seeing a wolf, the children fled. The wolf took down six-year-old John Stenglein and bit him on the back, legs and buttocks. A neighbor’s golden retriever rushed to the rescue but the wolf drove the dog back and then set upon John again. The boy’s cries brought adults who drove the wolf away. John received seven stitches and five surgical closure staples.
During the evening of July 1, 2000, on the shores of Vargas Island, British Columbia, a wolf entered the campsite of a kayaking group. They chased the wolf away. Members of the group also spotted another wolf that apparently hung back from the bolder wolf. At 2 a.m., 23-year-old Scott Langevin awoke with a small dark wolf tugging on his sleeping bag. “I yelled to try to spook it off, and I kicked at it,” Scott said. “It backed up a bit, but then it just lunged on top of me, and it started biting away through my sleeping bag.”
He rolled in an effort to situate the fire between him and the wolf, but the animal jumped on his back and bit him about the head. The noise woke his friends and they drove the wolf away. The wounds to Scott’s head required 50 stitches.
In all of the previous incidents, the offending wolves were killed. Autopsies indicated healthy animals.
Wolf! Magazine pointed out an interesting side note: The Victoria Time Colonist newspaper boldly headlined “Uvic Kayaker Mauled by Wolf” and the story beneath it was headlined in much smaller print, “Bear Kills Biathelte During Training Run”.
Why did These Attacks Happen?
In a wolf journal, the headline to an article about the Uttar Pradesh deaths read “Child Lifting in India”. Child Lifting doesn’t sound very serious-it diverted my thoughts from what actually happened and evoked visions of gleefully tossing a child up and down or a weight training program that utilized children instead of barbells. The headline struck me as ethnocentric or, at the very least, as an attempt to explain away or gloss over wolf behavior that doesn’t fit in with a Never Cry Wolf vision of the animal.
We do wolves a disservice if we strive to mold them into saints of the wild. However, reasons exist that may help us understand why the wolf (or wolves) killed children in India. The following is a list of factors wildlife biologists think contributed to circumstances that resulted in the deaths of the children:
- Human density of 1,500 per square mile and livestock (goats, sheep and pigs) density of 950 per square mile;
- Scarce prey for wolves;
- Three-times more unescorted children than livestock;
- Outdoor toilets on outskirts of village;
- A government compensation program that pays 5,000 rupees ($125-an amount that exceeds India’s average annual per capita income) for children killed by animals;
- Victims all from very poor families;
- And, probably the most important factor, as evidenced by their entering huts, wolves that are habituated to humans.
Habituation and food conditioning play major roles with the wolf attacks in Algonquin Provincial Park. The wolf that attacked Zachariah had frequented campsites and taken human items, it had clearly lost a fear of humans. Some wolf biologists felt that the wolf might have been interested only in the sleeping bag. This could have been the case to begin with-however, such an explanation falters at the point the wolf took Zachariah’s head in its mouth. As wolf biologists Pat Tucker and Diane Boyd pointed out, “Wolves olfactory senses are beyond our imagining. Only a scent-impaired wolf would fail to differentiate between a sleeping bag from a human.” Initially, the wolf may have been attracted by the sleeping bag and, grabbing for it, mistakenly got a hold of Zachariah and, instead of running away, decided to see what happened next. This seems to be a case of habituation giving rise to experimentation.
There have been other reasons provided to explain the aggressiveness displayed by Algonquin wolves.
- The release of captive wolves and hybrids in the park and;
- The offspring of released hybrids and wild wolves.
In both cases, the animals would be less timid of humans. However, in light of autopsies that revealed no evidence of hybridization or a life in captivity, such explanations end up sounding more like a means of covering for wild wolves.
Like humans, wolves possess character traits that shape them into shy, bold, dominant, submissive, extroverted or introverted individuals. The word bold, when attributed to a wolf, sounds synonymous with aggressive, but that’s not necessarily the case. Think of a bold wolf as an open-minded wolf. A bold wolf could be a subdominant animal forced to strike out on its own or a wolf with a genetic make-up that made it less timid or more curious. The main point here is that such a wolf would be inclined to experiment and, if rewarded with food procured from scavenging or direct feeding, it would grow habituated to humans and associate us with food. Once a wolf became food-habituated it could continue experimenting, pushing limits in search of new rewards. Such an animal could prove a threat to humans.
Ernest Thompson Seton Wolf
Some people believe that aggressive wolves result because humans no longer pose the threat we used to-their reasoning goes something like this, Wolf Attack from page 3: “If we killed wolves, they’d learn to be scared of us.” Such reasoning, while not entirely errant, isn’t necessarily correct either… Aggressive wolves may have begun as bold wolves but not all bold wolves are aggressive (bold and aggressive are not synonymous). Besides, poisoning, trapping, and the indiscriminate killing of wolves doesn’t exactly target the problem. True, there wouldn’t be any more aggressive wolves because there wouldn’t be anymore wolves and therefore the problem would cease to exist, but it’d be kind of like cutting off your head to clear up acne.
Habituation and experimentation also seem to account for the Alaskan and Vargas Island wolf attacks. The Alaskan wolf had hung around camps for up to two years, been fed, and was clearly habituated to people as it had shown fearless behavior in the past. John Carnes, a University of Idaho biologist (with the Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources), who had collared the wolf, felt that the dog could have been viewed as a competitor. But it’s crucial to remember that the wolf commenced an attack on the boy and after driving the dog back, it returned to the boy. Carnes pointed out an interesting fact, “The wolf bared its teeth and growled at the boys before attacking. This is more important than people realize. Wolves typically do not show aggressive behavior towards prey, usually only toward other wolves or dogs.” He concluded “that this was a habituated wolf that was showing dominance/territorial behavior… the key factor is that the wolf was habituated to people.”
As for the wolf that attacked kayaker, Scott Langevin-following the attack, numerous people reported that the wolves were being fed. Dan Dwyer, the Senior Conservation Officer for BC Environment said that there’s been an escalating problem with campers feeding wolves. Wolves on Vargas Island, which is a popular kayak destination, were regularly visiting campsites and investigating fire pits. Again, a food-conditioned, habituated animal… behavior that may have started with experimentation and led to pushing the limits too far.
Why Don’t Wolves Kill Us?
Here are some of the reasons cited by biologists why wolves don’t kill us:
- We stand on two legs, the animals wolves prey on don’t. This reason doesn’t stand on its own two legs in light of the humans killed in India. Additionally, the wolves that used to inhabit Japan preyed heavily on monkeys (another primate that spends time on two legs).
- Bears can stand on two legs and wolves generally avoid bears. Well maybe, generally… but, wolves have been observed harassing grizzly bears feeding on carcasses, some wolves have learned to prey on bear cubs and in another instance, young wolves paraded in-line behind a grizzly.
- Our favorite theory is that humans simply don’t taste good (probably due to all those additives).
The real question in regards to wolves killing people in North America isn’t ‘why’ but ‘when’-eventually it’s bound to happen. The number of humans continues to expand and wildlife habitat continues to shrink. Add to that, people who, believing wolves will sense their love and reciprocate, head into the woods hoping to lure their spirit animal closer with a sandwich. And then there are slobs who leave food and garbage where bold wolves will be rewarded for overcoming their inhibition of humans.
In October 1997, Tracy Delventhal (Zachariah’s mother), wrote, “Algonquin officials refuse to put limits on the number of folks that are using the interior and to educate and monitor them. As a result, the wolves’ environment has been seriously disturbed.
It is our feeling that more attacks will occur unless these things are changed. Educating our communities about the beauty and importance of wolves is not enough. We must take responsibility for the pressure we are putting on them AND accept that when a creature’s environment is altered, behavior will change. We are concerned that all the hype on “wonderful and wild wolves” lulls us into the belief that we are safe with them. It is our hope that wolves will flourish in the wilds of the world. But with the anti-wolf sentiment that already exists, other attacks will surely convince people that wolves need to be done away with.”
This essay is not meant to reinforce age-old fears of the wolf. The threat from wolves is inconsequential compared to other dangers we unflinchingly face every day.
But wolves need to be treated like wild animals because, after all, that’s what they are. If something is wild, you don’t feed it, try to get close or expect it to return your warm fuzzy feelings. If you truly respect wildness, you honor it by leaving it alone. When in the company of wolves, accord them the care, caution, and respect that you would extend to a bear or mountain lion or any other wild animal:
- Don’t feed them;
- Clean campsites and fire rings of foodscraps;
- Avoid intruding on den or rendezvous sites;
- Deposit trash in animal-proof containers (at home and when camping);
- If a wolf wanders into your campsite, scare it away (you’ll only be doing it a favor).
- Get a grip on your imagination.
For many people, the wolf is a construct of their imagination. Those who fear the wolf have conjured up a beast of death and desolation, a villain that should be killed before it kills us. This perception hasn’t served wolves well. But the naďve perception of the wolf as a noble shepherd who eats only sick, weak mice doesn’t serve wolves well either. When something is elevated upon a pedestal, there is only one way it can go from there-down. The portrayal of wolves as noble, beneficent animals places an unfair expectation on them, an expectation they can only fail to live up to. Many a saint has become a martyr at the hands of those who once adored him. When a North American wild wolf kills a human, as inevitably will happen, those who vilify wolves will feel all the more justified demanding their extermination as those who sanctified wolves stand bewildered, stunned, and gasping, “That wasn’t suppose to happen. I thought that no healthy wild wolf has ever…”
With that said, bear in mind that the threat of wolves to humans is so nominal, it shouldn’t even be a bleep on your radar screen. But your relative safety in the presence of wolves doesn’t mean they like us. Wolves don’t care if they’re your totem animal. They don’t care, much less know, about their bad-guy portrayal in Little Red Riding Hood. The perception of wolves as rapacious villains or a golden race reveals more about the beholder than it does about the creature of flesh and blood. Wolves are intelligent, social, adaptive, wild animals with character traits that vary from individual to individual. Have our lives grown so complacent, sterile and safe that we’re compelled to conjure demons and saints instead of baring our senses to what stands before us. True mystery and wonder is revealed to those who open their eyes, it is comprised of earth’s elements not the vaporous, phantasmagoric whirling of imagination.