Should You Be Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf?

A Troika Pursued by Wolves, Adolf Schreyer (1828-1899). Man versus wolf has been a favorite Russian theme for centuries.
A Troika Pursued by Wolves, Adolf Schreyer (1828-1899). Man versus wolf has been a favorite Russian theme for centuries.

by David E. Petzal

The most polarizing beast on four legs is very likely Canis lupus, the grey wolf. It probably evolved in Eurasia, probably a million years ago. We’ve co-existed—uneasily—for 160,000 years. Wolves resonate in our imaginations, and we invent incredible stuff about them.

Wolves have been raw material of tall tales for centuries, and continue to be. In the 2011 film The Grey, a plane load of oil drillers crashes in Alaska, and the six survivors who try to make it back to civilization are tracked down and killed one by one by a pack of wolves whose territory they have accidentally invaded. In 2012’s The Bourne Legacy, the hero gets in a wrestling match— I could find no knowledgeable source that gave an unarmed man any chance against a wolf—with an Alpha male, forces its jaws open, force-feeds the beast a homing device, and watches as it’s blown to bits by an air to ground missile. In 2003’s The Hunted, Tommy Lee Jones rescues a wolf whose paw is caught in a leghold trap. The wolf allows Mr. Jones to free it instead of removing his face, as would happen in real life. This particular bit of silliness goes all the way back to Aesop’s fable Androcles and the Lion.

And yet, wolves do kill and eat humans, and sometimes lots of them. In France, between 1362 and 1918, nearly 7,600 people were killed by wolves, of which 4,600 were not rabid. (Wolves, not people.) In Eurasia and India, over the centuries, the numbers are not so reliable, but must be very considerable. Pro-wolfers claim the animals are harmless to humans, but the record is mixed. In North America, there are vanishingly few recorded, authenticated wolf fatalities. Elsewhere in the world, the story is different.

Two Views of a Wolf’s Head, drawings by John Singer Sargent (1856-1925).

Pro-wolf people who know the animals and are objective can be conflicted. I once visited a wolf sanctuary where the caretaker denied with considerable heat that the animals attacked people.

“Would you get in the enclosure with them?”, I asked.

“Are you kidding?” he said.

The sanctuary had an “ambassador wolf,” an elderly, more or less sedate male that could be shown at schools and would probably not eat one of his admirers. The beast traveled in a cage in the back of a van. The curator would stop for lunch at McDonald’s and would always give the Ambassador a hunk of hamburger. One day, he forgot.

“That animal looked murder at me and let out a sound that was somewhere between a roar and a snarl. I’ve never heard anything like it in my life. He was in the cage and he still scared the shit out of me. I gave him the whole Big Mac.”

Wolves and humans got off to a bad start. Wolves, being apex predators, did as all apex predators do—they looked for the easiest prey. A Homo sapiens or a Homo neanderthalensis armed with a stone-tipped spear did not present a lot of danger or hard work compared to food sources on four legs, and so we made the wolf menu.

The Wolf Disguised as Grandmother, illustration by Arthur Rackham (1867-1939). What big teeth you have, Grandma.
The Wolf Disguised as Grandmother, illustration by Arthur Rackham (1867-1939). What big teeth you have, Grandma.

With the invention of the bow and arrow, which could kill at a distance, wolves learned to pick unarmed targets. Evidence of this was found in Siberia above the Arctic Circle, near the river Yana, where a wolf shoulder blade was unearthed that bore the unmistakable marks of several flint arrowheads. The wolf had survived, and limped off to die of something else. The shoulder blade was 48,000 years old.

Wolves learned to avoid arrows, and they’ve learned all about guns. But if they’re hungry enough even bullets won’t stop them. There are cases where wolf packs have attacked armed men, suffered casualties, and despite that, finished off the gun-toters. In March, 1923, near Cree Lake, Saskatchewan, the scene of a wolf-human fight was discovered. At the site was a rifle identified as belonging to one Kari Lynn, a trapper of note, Great War veteran, and expert shot. Along with it were expended shells and the bodies of six wolves. Lynn’s body had been dragged off and was never found.

Wolves are a lot like us. They’re intensely social, very good at cooperating with one another, addicted to communication (they howl compulsively; we do social media), skilled at killing, and fond of gluttony. Like humans, wolves attack for a variety of reasons, and biologists have classified them:

Rabid. Wolves suffer from outbreaks of rabies, although this species is much less susceptible than many others.

Provoked. Something has pissed them off or they feel threatened.

Predatory. If you take an animal that can eat 20 pounds of meat at a sitting and reduce its diet to a few field mice a day, it will become frantic with hunger, and may start eating people. (When we do this it’s called cannibalism.) In Eurasia and India, starving wolves have shown a marked preference for young children, who are easier marks than adults. 

Sampling the Food Source. Wolves, being smart, don’t bite off more than they can chew, so they make test attacks, much as sharks will nip at something to see what it is.

Habituation. Captive wolves are far more likely to attack than wild ones. Having grown accustomed to humans, they lose respect for them. Thus, they become unpredictable. In 1996, a game biologist named Patricia Wyman was hired as a caretaker for the wolf section of the Haliburton Forest and Wildlife Preserve in Ontario. This pack was contained on a 15-acre tract of intact forest. Its contact with humans was strictly limited. The animals were not considered habituated, and were regarded as shy and timid.

The day before her death, Wyman noticed the Alpha male acting aggressively. The next day, she entered the enclosure for reasons we do not know (It was not feeding day.) She was surrounded and killed by five wolves, but was not eaten. The Ontario Provincial Police were called, and two officers entered the compound, but were immediately surrounded by the pack. They fired their handguns, and the wolves ran. The next day they returned with six officers and were able to retrieve the body. The most rational account of the attack I can find speculates that she was surrounded, attempted to back out of the compound, tripped and fell over one of the logs that littered its ground, and her fall set off the pack. 

Probably the best indicator of where wolves really stand is Alaska, where there are between 7,000 and 11,000 of them. If you live in an Alaskan city, you have as much chance of seeing a wolf as you do of sighting a toucan or an aardvark. If you live in the bush, however, you are aware of the local wolf pack and keep track of it, but I don’t know any Alaskans who out and out fear them. Their fear is reserved for bears, weak ice, and sex-crazed bull moose.

I’ve seen a number of wolves in the wild. They were either at a considerable distance, or close by and getting away as fast as they could. But one sighting was different. I was on a caribou hunt in Quebec’s Ungava Peninsula. The hunt had ended. We had broken camp and were on the water, headed to the float plane, when into our deserted camp site, maybe 50 yards away, trotted the two biggest caribou bulls anyone present had ever seen or dreamed about. Loping alongside them at that effortless pace that can take them 30 miles in a day were two big, snow-white wolves.

We never learned how the drama played out. The pilot had a schedule, and we had to load the plane and go. But it was a wonderful sight, something from prehistory. I’m glad there were wolves to provide it. 

Dave Petzal, summing up his feelings about our fanged friends, is compelled to paraphrase the horrible but infinitely wise Jack OConnor: A wilderness with wolves in it is far more interesting than a wilderness without wolves.”