Friday, May 18, 2007

Little Red Riding Hood Was Right

It seems an article of faith in American environmental circles that wolves are harmless. While (until recently) there was no record of modern North American wolves harming anyone, a bit of research shows this to be an anomalous situation. Wolves of the exact same species preyed on humans in Europe and Russia; wolves even smaller than ours eat humans in India to this day.

The recent death of a young man in Canada raised the possibility of wolf- human predation. Eminent mammalogist Dr. Valerius Geist was charged with investigating the incident. His conclusions, soon to be released, are not comforting.

Do not misunderstand me here, or Val. I believe that wolves are wonderful top- of- the- food chain predators, and ecosystems are healthier for their presence. I can thrill to a howl in the night. But attitudes must be realistic, and wolves should be hunted to keep them wary of humans. Wolves that become habituated, that hang around humans and their livestock in broad daylight, are a disaster waiting to happen.

Dr. Geist has written a long document analysing both the particular incident and pointing out signs of imminent danger. Let me quote a bit from both. First, from the abstract:

"The politically correct view about wolves, currently vehemently and dogmatically defended, is that wolves are “harmless” and of no danger to humans. This view arose from the early research of eminent North American biologists who, confronted by historical material contradictory to their experiences, greatly mistrusted such. Due to language, political and cultural barriers they could access such at best in part, but they were nevertheless convinced that the old view of wolves, as enshrined in Grimm’s fairy tale Little Red Riding Hood was incorrect and based on ill founded myths, fears and superstitions. They were greatly aided in this by premature conclusions about free-living and captive wolves, as well as by a brilliant literary prank by a renowned Canadian author and humorist, which illustrated wolves as harmless mouse eaters. While scientists quickly caught on, they nevertheless welcomed the opposition to the Little Red Riding Hood myth. They pointed to the undeniable fact that wolves killed no human in North America in the 20th Century. This did not, however, reflect on the nature of wolves, but rather on circumstances: wolves were eradicated or severely prosecuted over much of the continent, North Americans were well armed and quickly removed misbehaving wolves where such were still present, while hunted wolves are exceedingly shy and avoid humans. The view of the “harmless” wolf was greatly welcomed by the communist party of Russia, which ever since coming to power suppressed accounts of man-killing wolves. During and after the Second World War such censorship intensified, as was only disclosed after the fall of the communist rule in Russia. The reason for such suppression was to obscure the link between lethal wolf attacks and the disarming of the civilian population during the war. Wolves quickly exploited the defenselessness of villagers, leading to many fatal attacks on humans. When Russian scientists disclosed this, their translations in the west were suppressed and their authority and motives questioned by environmental organizations and some scientists."


"It is even more ironic that, while wolf biologists stoutly denied dangers from wolves and failed to develop any understanding of the conditions under which wolves were harmless or dangerous, their counterparts studying urban coyotes did just that. They described a progression of behaviors, which predicts when coyotes would attack children. Wolves follow much the same progression. It can be divided into seven steps with increasing risk to humans, culminating with attacks on humans. Such a progression can be developed from historical material as well as from current attacks by wolves on humans in North America. The fairy tale of Little Red Riding Hood is thus based in very real historical experiences in central Europe. In addition to targeted attacks, wolves can mistakenly charge humans. The politically correct myth of the harmless wolf is being defended with a number of lethal fallacies as well as by wrongly invoking the prestige of science. In practice it is a lethal myth and the tragic death of 22-year-old Kenton Carnegie on November the 8th 2005 in northern Saskatchewan, is a case in point. He had no authoritative warning. He was killed by wolves, which, protected from hunting, were not merely habituated to people through the use of a garbage dump, but had already mounted a first exploratory attack on humans, which was narrowly defeated. Against a pack of wolves, a lone man has no chance."

From the conclusions:

"As I have shown, wolves signal impending attacks on people a long time before it happens. They act very much like their smaller cousin, the coyote. Yet the vehemence with which the myth of the “benign wolf” is defended by environmental groups, but also individuals claiming to be scientists studying wolves, transcends reason. Already a renowned biologist studying wolves laments that extremists have highjacked the wolf agenda. As scholars we must live by Oliver Cromwell’s admonition:” I beseech thee in the bowls of Christ, consider that thee may be mistaken!”. Especially, when political correctness has raised its ugly head!

"As to Kenton Joel Carnegie’s tragic death I harbor no doubts. He was killed and consumed by wolves."

I welcome the return of the wolf to New Mexico, but I deplore its current means. Wolves that stalk humans in broad daylight-- as is admitted-- should be removed immediately. The impending disaster will not only hurt its victims-- it may well put an end to our having any wolves here at all.

For some fascinating wolf material see this PDF of the wolves of the British Columbia rain forest. (HT Walter Hingley). It really shows what a high- end, opportunistic predator they can be."Coastal wolves are proving themselves unique among wolves in the world by eating a high proportion of carnivores. Researchers are consistently finding the remains of black bears and river otters in wolf dietary samples- more than anywhere else where wolves have been studied. Notably, by consuming these two animals (which depend on food from the sea) wolves are indirectly feeding on marine resources. Interestingly, wolves also feed on other items from the sea such as washed-up marine mammal carcasses, crabs, mussels, and even barnacles."

Adds Val: "Also, wolves released on islands in coastal Alaska completely cleaned up on deer, then turned to catching seals that had hauled out - and then starved to death! Every one. As opportunists they will in coastal areas search beaches for edibles. No wonder they are circumpolar and highly resilient to prosecution!"


Rebecca K. O'Connor said...

This touches on the place I've been going with my blogs on applied behavior analysis. The experts in this field that I talk to are always confounded as to why ABA experts are not an automatic addition to any conservation problem-solving team. This is the person that has the ability to cut through the BS (constructs and pervasive anecdotes), examine the straight behavior and prompt solution-making. Realistic and workable solutions - like trained aversion.

PBurns said...

Reality has a way of trumping theory on both ends of the scale.

The folks that suggest that all wolves anywhere are a bad idea have little evidence to support their case, while the folks that suggest large predators cannot be a serious problem worthy of an immediate bullet, are similary handicapped.

The amazing thing here in the MidAtlantic states is that we have a very rapidly rising population of large-bodied coyotes AND a huge amount of rabies, AND high human population densities. Put all that together, and I would have predicted real problems, but so far there have only been 2-3 rabid coyote attacks on humans that I know of (and I do scan for such things).

When it comes to mortality, bees are still the thing to fear in the woods. And that's true, even in wolf and mountain lion country.


Steve Bodio said...

"bees are still the thing to fear in the woods."

Amen, Patrick! I carry a pistol in the woods in case of a (pretty unlikely) predator confrontation(I worry more about lions attacking my dogs-- have friends who have lost dogs to cats). But I am WAY more nervous about bees (and many of ours are Africanized as well!)

Mark Churchill said...

I like the approach taken by the International Wolf Center (website at They advocate for wolves without becoming their apologists. No Farley-Mowat-they-live-on-mice nonsense, but good information on real wolves. Yes, they will occasionally take livestock -- here's what stockmen can do about it -- and there's no guarantee it will always work. Yes, they will under certain circumstances threaten humans -- but here are the numbers. Education without a lot of spin, policy recommendations that consider real-world factors: Here's an approach to conservation that just might work...

patnolan said...

The BBC News/Europe

has a short story/video clip today about increasing predation on sheep by wolves in the French and Italian Alps.

dr. hypercube said...

"The view of the “harmless” wolf was greatly welcomed by the communist party of Russia, which ever since coming to power suppressed accounts of man-killing wolves. During and after the Second World War such censorship intensified, as was only disclosed after the fall of the communist rule in Russia. The reason for such suppression was to obscure the link between lethal wolf attacks and the disarming of the civilian population during the war."
Wow - there's the start of a book in those 3 sentences.

Speaking of risks - if you happen to drive to the trailhead/landing/turnout, I have a prediction regarding the most dangerous part of the trip! We (humans) suck at real risk assesment - I'll bet that back in Red's time bad water or getting kicked by a horse was a lot more likely to kill you than a wolf attack (even given a higher attack likelihood back then).

Anonymous said...

HT = Hat tip, right??

W Hingley

Jerry said...

If we have to steer a middle course between extirpation and letting wolves run amok, it would seem that allowing limited sport hunting would be the best solution to maintain a healthy fear of humans.

I wonder if this course will become more acceptable to the general public when wolves progress from menacing "welfare ranchers" to snagging mountain bikers?

Steve Bodio said...

Jerry-- that is too true to be funny. If wolves were in Moab they'd be a game species already. Or varmint.

sisterflash said...

Intresting topic. I am living with the FWS habituated Mexican Gray wolves.

These wolves have followed us home, denned near homes, attacked near childeren, dogs have intercepted wolves heading to childeren on private land, entered hunting camps, followed people on horse back, circled childeren..we you are getting the picture.

Not to mention all the dogs, horses and cattle that have been injured for life or slaughtered.

Nothing is being done to change these animals behavior.

I suspect that the next bad wolf incident will occur in Arizona, New Mexico area from these captive raised habituated wolves.

Steve Bodio said...

Sisterflash-- Val thinks so too. And so do I. These wolves are way over the line in their behavior, and should have been handled differently.

Another reason to be armed....

A. Lane Batot said...

One reason there may have been so few wolf attacks on people in early North America is that the people(Native Americans, pioneers) were animal savvy, and knew how to act/react when confronting predators--i.e., they didn't panic or act like prey--plus, there was still a lot of big game for the wolves to prey on, unlike game devoid areas in Europe. Modern overly urbanized Americans show little understanding about how to act around animals, wild or domestic, which will inevitably lead to unfortunate incidents.

Nightmare said...

I read something today that put me in mind of this wolf post of yours:

Click on the link in blog and read the article about the wolf attacks on dogs in Alaska; If the account is even half true it would scare the crap out of me.