Wild Sentry's Newsletter #31 - © Spring 2001
By Bruce Weide
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.
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.
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?
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.
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
Attacks in North America
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:
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
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.
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.
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
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."
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.
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
did These Attacks Happen?
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.
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:
density of 1,500 per square mile and livestock (goats, sheep and
pigs) density of 950 per square mile;
2. Scarce prey for wolves;
3. Three-times more unescorted children than livestock;
4. Outdoor toilets on outskirts of village;
5. 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;
6. Victims all from very poor families;
7. And, probably the most important factor, as evidenced by
their entering huts, wolves that are habituated to humans.
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.
have been other reasons provided to explain the aggressiveness displayed
by Algonquin wolves.
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.
release of captive wolves and hybrids in the park and;
2) The offspring of released hybrids and wild wolves.
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
[See Bold Wolf Sidebar.]
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.
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."
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.
Don't Wolves Kill Us?
are some of the reasons cited by biologists why wolves don't kill
1) 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).
2) 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.
3) Our favorite theory is that humans simply don't taste good
(probably due to all those additives).
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.
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.
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."
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.
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
2) Clean campsites and fire rings of foodscraps;
3) Avoid intruding on den or rendezvous sites;
4) Deposit trash in animal-proof containers (at home and when
5) If a wolf wanders into your campsite, scare it away (you'll
only be doing it a favor).
6) Get a grip on your imagination.
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 naïve 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…"
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.
Putting Risk Into Perspective
- Forest Service email reported 1992 figures
on the wildlife hazards afield. Topping the list of animal-caused
human deaths were deer, racking up 131 for the year. Except
in movies, sharks took only one human, bees 43, and rattlesnakes
- You are more likely to be killed by a coconut falling on
your head than by a shark (therefore we absolutely oppose
the introduction of coconut trees to Montana!)
- From 1989-94 there were 109 fatal dog attacks in the U.S.
- Children crushed to death by televisions since 1990: 2
- An average of 100 people per year choke to death on ballpoint
In the next year:
- You have a 1 in 2 million chance of dying
from falling out of bed.
- You have a 1 in 2 million chance of being killed by an animal.
1 in 3 chance that you'll die of heart disease.
1 in 5 chance that you'll die of cancer.
1 in 45 chance that you'll die in an auto accident.
1 in 72 chance that you'll deliberately kill yourself.
1 in 700,000 chance that you'll be killed by a dog.
So if society deems wolves expendable due
to the threat they pose to human safety, it only stands to
reason that ballpoint pens, televisions, cars, and dogs should
be eliminated also.
are Old Wolves and Bold Wolves…
But Should There be Old, Bold Wolves?
environment and life experiences modify genetic behavior,
evidence is mounting that individuals are born with innate
tendencies toward boldness or shyness. Sibling humans raised
in the same families, in the same basic environment exhibit
different degrees of tolerance for risk. Other species, including
wolves, are no different. By four weeks of age Koani's reaction
to strange people and situations was radically different than
one of her sisters. That sister was already extremely shy
and retreated to a box shelter at any environmental change,
while Koani, though not rushing boldly forward, usually retreated
only slightly and then came forward to investigate, given
that whatever happened was not overtly threatening.
psychologists theorize that a diversity of reactions to strange
stimuli are retained in populations rather than one behavior
being selected for and the other totally weeded out because
environments change constantly. Individuals with one behavior
may survive and reproduce better for awhile. But by the time
a few more generations roll by, environmental conditions usually
change enough so that individuals born with a different reaction
to a novel opportunity survive better and live to pass on
interesting to theorize how differing innate wolf personality
types may be selected for or against by humans. Throughout
most of North America, for at least the last century, humans
heavily persecuted wolves. Wolves were shot on sight. Any
individuals who did not retreat and stay out of sight of humans
were killed before they were able to pass on the genetics
of "boldness" to offspring. Hence it is not unreasonable to
speculate that innately shy wolves became more and more common
in wolf populations. With the creation of National Parks and
laws that protect wolves, persecution of any bolder animals
still being born lessened. In areas where wolves are protected
there may in fact be a selective advantage for bolder, less
shy individuals. Bolder animals are less bothered by the myriad's
of humans swarming throughout wild areas and can proceed about
the business of hunting and raising families without constantly
expending energy seeking cover and staying out of sight.
the reasons may be speculative, there is general agreement
among wolf biologists that the number of bold wolves is increasing.
However the sixty-four thousand-dollar question isn't whether
they're increasing but what should be "done" about bold wolves.
Are bold wolves "unnatural"? Are they likely to become "bad"
wolves-wolves that threaten human safety? If so, should bold
wolves be eliminated as soon as they are identified?
this time, there is no convincing evidence that bold wolves
are aggressive or dangerous. Therefore, there is no need to
eliminate a wolf just because it does not run in terror at
the sight of a human. These animals are not unnaturally bold
(i.e. animals that did not exist before protection of wolves
was imposed) but more likely a return to the normal personality
variations that existed before wolf populations were subjected
to extreme persecution by European immigrants to North America.
bold wolves may be more likely to learn to exploit humans
for food in the form of handouts or garbage, the rewards for
such behavior can also attract shy individuals. Once that
step is taken, whether it is by a "naturally" bold or shy
individual, there is ample evidence that the animal is likely
to become dangerous and should be destroyed. A fed wolf is
a dead wolf and those who feed wolves should be viewed with
the disdain they deserve. The people who leave garbage lying
around or tempt a wolf with handouts would, if justice truly
existed, be the ones dragged from their sleeping bags. But
food conditioning takes time and, unfortunately, the ignorant
or selfish people who initiate and encourage it aren't the
ones stitched back together by a doctor. Instead, the innocent
pay- the animal ends up dead and people like Zachariah are
Wolf Attack Essay.