Explaining Wolf Attacks

Here is something from wolf trust about wolves and people that I found interesting especially about wolf protecting there kills.

Wolf Trust

Wolves Killing People

Explaining Wolf Attacks

We can begin to make sense of wolf attacks under three heads: rabid attacks, predatory attacks and defensive attacks.

1. Rabid Attacks

Rabid wolves have gone mad and cannot help but act the way they do. A rabid animal running amok and biting other animals is the virus’s way of finding more victims in which to replicate itself.

2. Predatory Attacks

It is more difficult to fathom the reasons behind predatory attacks; a number of different factors seem involved.

Kept Wolves & Wolf-Dog Hybrids

Rearing wolves, bears and foxes at home was a centuries old custom in parts of Europe and some wolves were cross bred with dogs to use when hunting (Rootsi 2001). The custom dates back at least to Charlemagne.

It is easy to assume that owners of kept wolves were responsible for at least some attacks on people, when their animals escaped their control, and that some attacks were by their wolf-dog hybrids. In Estonia, for example, some wolves that were hunted down and shot because there were suspected of killing people were found to be wearing collars, indicating they were errant wolves people had kept (Rootsi 2001).

Highly Modified Environment

The Linnell Report pictures a degraded environment of pre-20th century Europe which prepared the scene for predatory attacks:

# Because of unrestricted hunting, forest clearing and intensive livestock grazing there is little natural wolf prey. Wolves are therefore forced to feed on domestic animals and garbage. (This was still the situation for the few surviving wolves in Italy and Spain at least into the 1970’s.)

# There is widespread poverty and often many unsupervised small children.

# The majority of shepherds and herders are children tending their flocks all day in the fields and unattended by adults. Solitary children also wander about gathering firewood and edible plants.

# Because livestock and edible garbage are close to people, wolves associate this food with children and with people generally.

The scene is set. All that is needed now is a wolf.

# A wolf approaches a few small isolated children and learns they can be grabbed easily. Perhaps the wolf is debilitated in some way, injured by a gun or trap, setting him on this course of hunting easy animals. Or perhaps he is just inquisitive. But once attacked, humans become an alternative source of prey.

# When one wolf acquires this knowledge, if he lives in a pack, the learning might spread to other pack members.

# The number of attacks on people are spasmodic and not high because the wolves do not rely entirely on people as a food source.

Child Lifting

Child lifting in India is explained in the Linnell Report and by Jhala (2000) by the highly modified environment hypothesis, as sketched above.

Wolves in India used to live on wild prey but people have largely extirpated the prey by over hunting. Now wolves are forced to feed on livestock which brings them close to people, particularly to the many unattended small children on the loose. The regions of India were child lifting occurs today parallel Europe of past times.

Decline Of Wolf Attacks In Europe

The 20th century heralded in more frequent and accurate record keeping and easier and quicker access to records than ever before. You would therefore expect more wolf attacks, not fewer, to be recorded and traceable. So what can account for the apparent decrease in wolf attacks (rabid and predatory) in 20th century Europe?

A number of reasons are suggested by the Linnell Report which could add up to explain the decrease in wolf attacks.

# Wolves in Europe were killed off or reduced in number over large regions by about the early 20th century, so wolves are less numerous and live in fewer places.

# The really fierce wolves were more prominent so were among the first to die, leaving for the most part relatively shy wolves who kept away from people – natural selection in action.

# Rabies decreased geographically so there are fewer rabid wolves.

# The number of shepherds and child-shepherds has dwindled.

# People have migrated to the cities from the countryside, so there are not as many people around to be attacked.

# Keeping tame wolves or wolf-dog hybrids, who may have been responsible for many deaths, is less common in Europe than in former times.

# Finally, having been shot out, the wolf’s wild prey is increasing. As there are more wild prey for wolves there is less need to approach human habitation, like garbage dumps, and come into contact with people.


There is a tendency to repair degraded environments in western Europe, North America and other places, although degradation still remains a huge concern. However, even in ecologically diverse environments there is a problem, that of habituation.

Habituation is when wolves lose their fear of humans and consequently approach too close. Habituation can happen when people encourage wolves to come up to them, especially by offering them food, or when people do not scare wolves away sufficiently.

The folly of feeding wolves and allowing them to be familiar with people is born out by the Vargas Island incident, documented in the McNay Report. The island is not far from Vancouver, British Columbia.

The Vargas Island Incident: This serious incident underscores the problem of habituation. The tragedy is the more thought provoking because of the fine close up picture taken of the alleged wolves a few days before everything came to a head. The picture, in the MacNay Report, was taken by Jacqueline Windh, a wildlife photographer who had paddled by kayak across to the island.

Walking along the beach, Windh met a male and a female wolf. Crouching to take a photo, she held out a hand to them and the female approached her. The wolf sniffed her hand and bit it cautiously, perhaps to find out if she was holding food, which she was not. Later on, the male wolf also approached her and less carefully gnawed at a rip in her clothing and nibbled her toes exposed through her sandals (so much for wild ferocious wolves!).

The pair of wolves hung about for the next couple of days, at times playing around and trying to pinch some articles from Windh’s camp. But they got no food. When they became more insistent and unmanageable they had to be driven away by throwing rocks at them, a typical technique to drive wolves away.

A few days later some campers arrived and two of them slept outside their tent at night. One of them awoke near midnight to find a wolf sitting on the end of his sleeping bag. The wolf would not budge but eventually was made to go away. Later that night a wolf bit the other camper sleeping outside and severely gashed the man’s head. The wolf was driven off and the man was taken to hospital where he had 50 stitches. The following morning, officers shot two wolves, a male and a female, near the camp site.

People on the island said they fed the wolves as cubs a year before and fed the wolves days before the attack. It seems that the wolves had lost their fear of people and came to expect food from them. On the night of the attack, when food was not forthcoming, one of the wolves had got a bit rough, not very aggressive, but too much for the human frame to bear.

Mistaken Identity

It is likely that some reports of wolf attacks, where incidents have not been thoroughly checked by experienced investigators, are attacks by dogs or wolf-dog hybrids. Other animals can be mistaken for wolves, such as coyotes in the US and jackals and hyaenas (Hyena hyena) in India. Is the creature glimpsed far off in the twilight a wolf, dog or an altogether different species? Correct recognition, even when close-up, can be incorrect.

3. Defensive Attacks

We have seen that wolves put up little resistance when cornered, even when people are threatening to remove their cubs. This is surprising for a predator with such a fearsome reputation.

You would expect large, pack-living predators like wolves tenaciously to protect their growing family from human attack. Equally, you would expect them to guard their kills and chase off these frail humans. Yet David Mech, a foremost American researcher with over 40 years experience specialising in wolf research in the field, says he is never in danger from wolves, even when he and other workers chase wolf packs away from fresh kills (Mech 70:293).

An final illustration of the lack of mortal danger from wolves comes from a Manitoba trapper, Stuart Jansson, in the 1990’s (McNay 2002). Just as night was closing in he found signs of a recent wolf kill of a deer. Marks on the ground showed the carcass had been dragged into the cover of some nearby trees. Jansson walked into the clump of trees and was stopped in his tracks by a loud growl just a few feet ahead. It was too dark to see anything so he stepped back into the open. The next day he returned and found the tracks of four or five wolves. Just a jaw and a few hairs were left of the deer. He had plainly blundered almost straight into the kill the night before, apparently guarded by a wolf who had threatened him with nothing more dangerous than a growl.

© Wolf Trust 2004. All rights reserved.


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