Who's Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf? -- Revisited
By L. David Mech
"There's never been a documented case of a healthy wild wolf killing or
seriously injuring a person in North America."
Many of us have heard this statement, or even uttered it ourselves,
especially those of us who study wolves or try to teach the public about
them. But just how true is the statement, and why the qualifiers? The
statement has been around for many years. Has there never been an exception?
Furthermore, if wolves do not attack people, why don't they?
As one whose job has required me to deal up close with wolves regularly, I
have tried to keep track of these issues. I have spent the last 12 summers
virtually living with a pack of wild wolves in the high Arctic just 600
miles from the North Pole. Every night during those summers only the thin
nylon of my tent separated me from the wolves while I slept. Often, adult
wolves howled or barked, or pups whimpered, a few feet from my head,
interrupting my sleep. Even when I was outside my tent eating, or sometimes
when otherwise indisposed, my summer canid companions would nose around and
make me chase them off. This doesn't count the number of times I have caught
them rolling around on my freshly-cleaned undershorts that I had spread on
the tundra to dry.
All in all, I have worked and lived around 16 of these Arctic wolves, and
none has ever made me feel afraid of it. One got into the habit of lying
outside my tent like a dog while I slept. Another let me sit among her pups
and take notes while she nonchalantly howled only a few feet away. Others
once stuck their heads inside my tent and pulled my sleeping bag out;
fortunately I was watching from a distance and was able to get them to drop
it by letting out a sharp hoot.
Nevertheless, these are the same wolves I have watched tackle an adult musk
ox and tear it apart. Their jaws were strong enough to crack the ends off
the musk ox's three-inch-wide leg bones. Relatives of these wolves to the
south have been able to crack open the skulls of adult moose. It is clear
that wolves could easily kill a human if they so desired. Yet, at least
until recently, no one has ever turned up dead, missing, eaten or even
seriously injured by a nonrabid wolf during all the many millions of visitor
days in our national forests, parks and other wilderness areas where wolves
In fact, even the "close calls" between wolves and humans in North
America have been rare enough to warrant documentation in scientific
journals. Such reports include wolves treeing several botanists who happened
to be in the general vicinity of a wolf den in Canada's Northwest
Territories; a wolf biting a man in the Arctic who tried to pull the animal
away from his sled dogs with whom it was fighting; and a wolf grazing its
tooth across the cheek of a paleo-botanist as the animal -- which appeared
to be merely curious -- jumped at the woman on Ellesmere Island near the
Two interesting wolf-human encounters in northeastern Minnesota add further
to the mix of ways in which wolves have interacted with humans, without the
humans coming out seriously injured. The first incident involved a logger
who saw two wolves attacking a deer nearby. The logger picked up his dog,
which had become extremely frightened by the deer attack. One of the wolves
charged toward the man and dog, catching a lower fang on the logger's
black-and-red checkered wool shirt and slicing a six-inch gash in the
material. As the wolf tried to yank free from the logger's clothes, its jaws
opened wide and the logger looked right down the animal's throat.
"It wasn't me the wolf was attacking," the logger told me.
"He was trying to get the dog who just happened to be in my arms."
The second Minnesota incident left a 19-year-old hunter with a long scratch
from a wolf's claws. The man had been hunting snowshoe hares deep in a thick
swamp north of Duluth during a snowstorm. He was wearing his deer-hunting
jacket, which was well anointed with buck scent. Suddenly a wolf hit him
from behind and knocked him over onto his back. As the wolf stood over him,
the startled hunter managed to fire his .22-caliber rifle. The wolf appeared
to come to its senses and fled, leaving the hunter with a long scratch.
Mistaken identity? Perhaps, but if the wolf had intended to kill the hunter,
it could easily have done so.
Why don't wolves kill or injure people in North America's forests, parks and
wildernesses? This is not an easy question to answer. It is true that
generally wolves are very afraid of humans. This fear is probably because
wolves have been so thoroughly persecuted by humans for so long. Thus it is
a rare and notable event when someone spots a wolf in the wild, even when
It is because of the wolf's elusiveness that I have had to travel to the
high Arctic each summer -- an area about 200 miles north of the closest
Inuit village -- to observe wolves at close range. Even the wolves on Isle
Royale National Park in Lake Superior, which haven't been harassed by humans
since their arrival on the island in 1949, retain their extreme shyness of
There are a few places, however, where wolves have either lost their shyness
of people or perhaps never developed it. An example of the latter is in the
high Arctic, where I live with "my pack" each summer. Examples of
the former can be found in several national parks where some wolves, like
some coyotes and bears, have become accustomed to people.
Why don't these wolves, who have lost their fear of humans, attack people?
The answer may lie in the fact that humans stand upright on two legs. No
wolf prey does so. Furthermore, bears sometimes stand upright on their hind
legs, and generally wolves try to avoid bears. Another possibility is that
wolves long ago learned to avoid humans. Those wolves that didn't learn this
lesson were eliminated.
A final part of the answer, however, is rather disconcerting. I am referring
here to incidents, mostly in Asia and Europe, in which wolves apparently
have killed or seriously injured people. For centuries such accounts have
emanated from areas like Russia, China, the Mideast, and even Spain and
other European countries. Many such accounts are no doubt attributable to
rabid wolves which, like rabid dogs, squirrels and skunks, will attack
people. Many other accounts are clearly fabrications or extreme
exaggerations, such as the 1911 newspaper report from Tashkent in the former
Soviet Republic of Georgia which claimed that wolves killed an entire
wedding party of 130 people.
Such obvious fiction tends to cloud any serious accounts that might be
valid. Nevertheless, recent reports of wolves killing people in India have
been checked by qualified authorities and appear to be valid. From March to
October 1996, a wolf or wolves allegedly killed or seriously injured 64
children in the Indian state of Uttar Pradesh. Dr. Yadvendradev Jhala, a
U.S.-trained wolf biologist who studies wolves in his native India,
investigated these reports and attempted to determine if any animal other
than wolves could have been involved. By examining victims, questioning
survivors and witnesses, and checking tracks, hairs and scats, Jhala
concluded that a wolf or wolves were involved in the killings.
In March and April 1997, another nine or 10 humans apparently fell prey to
wolves in the same area. Almost all of the victims were children under age
10 who had been playing or relieving themselves around the outskirts of
small villages surrounded by heavy vegetative cover. Very few wild prey
inhabit the area, and most domestic livestock are well-tended.
The young children had been left unsupervised, perhaps even neglected, by
their parents at the time of their deaths. Because the government of India
compensates parents of children killed by wild animals at a rate higher than
average annual salaries, Indian biologists believe that there may actually
be an incentive for parents not to watch their children as closely as they
might otherwise. In areas where the killings occurred, wolves commonly
frequent villages and sometimes even enter huts. They have obviously lost
their fear of humans, or perhaps they are so desperate from lack of prey
that they must resort to scavenging closely around human abodes. This
combination of lack of fear, proximity to humans, and the presence of many
small children in heavy cover may promote in some bolder wolves the tendency
to experiment with this new type of prey. It may have taken wolves many
attempts before they actually succeeded in grabbing a small child, but once
one or two succeeded, the reward would have been enough to start fixing the
trait in the local wolf population.
A similar combination of circumstances might explain last year's report of a
wolf grabbing 11-year-old Zachary Delventhal from his sleeping bag in
Algonquin Provincial Park, Ontario, Canada.
On August 17, 1996, a wolf grabbed Zachary by the face and tried to drag him
off, causing a wound that required 80 stitches. The wolf may have been
trying, however, to grab not the boy, but his sleeping bag. As mentioned
earlier, the wolves I live with in the high Arctic once tried to grab my
empty sleeping bag from a tent. Another time, they tried to run off with a
sleeping bag that I was airing on the tundra. Wolves, like dogs, seem
attracted to soft, fluffy or fur-like items, which they like to play with or
rip apart. Regardless of the wolf's intent in the Algonquin Park incident,
the important factor was that the animal was accustomed to humans. It had
been running off with backpacks, tennis shoes and other human items in the
area for several days previous to the attack on Zachary. It had even been
eating human food.
In other words, like bears that feed at dumps, garbage cans or human
campsites, this wolf had not only lost its fear of humans but had been
rewarded for doing so. While this combination of circumstances certainly
does not always lead to incidents in which humans are injured, it appears to
be a predisposing condition. Put simply, it is not a sufficient reason for
wolf injuries to humans, but it does seem to be a necessary one.
As wolf populations begin to recover in both the Lake Superior and western
regions of the United States, it is important that people understand this
situation. Wolves are large carnivores. Like bears, cougars and domestic
dogs, they should be regarded as potentially dangerous. This does not mean
that wolves should be viewed with an unhealthy fear or that we must return
to the days when wolves were regarded as demons. It only means that we
should view wolves with the same healthy respect due any potentially
L. David Mech is an internationally known wildlife research biologist who
has studied wolves for almost 40 years. He is the founder of the
International Wolf Center in Ely, Minnesota a Board of Director. He is published widely in scholarly and popular journals.