Why are we so afraid of wolves?
By Lorna Smith
Should we, as humans, be afraid of wolves? Biologists who study large carnivores know that the answer is simply “no.”
Wild wolves generally fear people and rarely pose a threat to human safety. Attacks on humans by wolves are quite rare compared to those by other species. Since 1950, wolves are known to have killed nine people in Europe, where current wolf numbers total 10,000 to 20,000, and eight people in Russia, where about 40,000 wolves exist. Human deaths have also been reported in India, where conditions have deprived wolves of wild prey and livestock are heavily guarded.
In North America, where there are about 60,000 wolves, two human deaths have been attributed to wolves in the past 60 years. One occurred in Saskatchewan in 2007 and the other in Alaska in 2010. The first death apparently involved habituated wolves being fed by people or attracted to garbage.
In fact, there are many animals that deserve to come before wolves, if deadly attacks are what we fear – such as elephants, which kill one person every four years, horses, which kill 20 people each year, dogs, which kill 31 people every year, and bees and wasps, whose stings kill 53 people in the United States each year. Yet we continue to ride horses, share our homes with dogs and our gardens with bees. Why then do wolves top the list of animals most feared by humans in many parts of the United States?
The answer partly lies in our shared mythology and story-telling. There are dozens of fairy tales featuring the “big, bad, wolf.” We say “cry wolf,” “wolf at the door,” “wolf your food” and “thrown to the wolves.”
Modern literature aimed at the teen market is full of vampires and werewolves, designed to send shivers up the spines of impressionable youngsters (and more than a few adults). Filmmakers are still making movies like The Gray, a recent film featuring Liam Neeson, in which gray wolves pursue and eat humans. Throughout our history, wolves have represented the dark, the dire, the dangerous and unpredictable.
The wolf of reality is nothing like its mythological doppelganger. They may look alike, but there the resemblance ends. Canis lupus is a large carnivore of the same species as our domestic dog, Canis lupus familiaris. Wolves are wild animals that have complex social structures and must hunt to stay alive. Wolves, by nature are very shy and cautious. Entering new territory, they will take their time, and carefully evaluate whether or not it is safe to proceed.
Wolves are neither good nor bad. They do not have a human-like sense of morality, but are governed by a very stern code of behavior within the pack, as with any other social animal that must hunt cooperatively and care for the young together.
All large carnivores have the ability to do great harm with their size, strength, speed and big teeth. The fascinating thing is that they almost never do. They have a natural fear of what humans can do to them, and humans, furthermore are not on the menu. As long as they avoid contact with humans, they can live their natural lives in large part as if we don’t exist, and save their energy for the pursuit of prey.
The life of a carnivore is dangerous and full of unpredictability. Can you imagine being an 80-pound wolf and taking down a full-grown, 800-pound adult elk? Even with the help of other pack members, that takes tremendous strength, speed and endurance. A kick from those powerful hooves or a jab from those formidable antlers, and the wolf can be badly injured. A wolf that cannot run at full capacity cannot eat.
Wolves have far more to fear from humans than we do from them. And they know it.
Lorna Smith is executive director of Western Wildlife Outreach in Port Townsend.