*Update* December 29, 2008, 3:40 p.m. – Below I reference the work of Dr. Valerius Geist, “The Dangers of Wolves“. This link will take you to the entire writing in reference – with permission.

On this very website and plastered all across various media, you can read story after story of what did or did not kill a human victim in the outdoors. Whenever it is parleyed to the public about the attack of lets say a bear or wolf, it is generally accompanied with poor information that misleads. Sometimes this parleying of incorrect animal behavior is intentional but mostly it is only the passing on of unsubstantiated conclusions picked up by the press and individuals and passed on. Over time it is assumed to be accurate and we well know that very few will ever go beyond the popular talking points to dig up the truth or at least find opposing information.

While this much repeated rhetoric about wolves and wolf behavior seems to pacify most, the dangers in repeating the mantra become obvious. Wolf lovers want us to believe that the animal is harmless, shy, reclusive and a necessary function in our ecosystems. Wolf haters want them all killed because they are a vicious predator that kills whatever is in its sights.

What never gets passed on is the truth as it is being discovered about wolf behavior. The difficulty in doing that become twofold. First, we have been programmed through repeated myths that we all have to accept what is mostly written. Secondly, people don’t want to hear the truth or anything that might run contrary to what they have chosen to believe. Often times that choice is taken as a means of forcing ourselves to feel better about the wolf and focus only the animals beauty, cunning and adaptability, placing it on an undeserving pedestal as being top dog, often above that of humans and almost god like.

One myth that gets perpetuated in every news and magazine article about wolves attacking humans is that it never or rarely happens, followed by some random number of how many times someone has been attacked in North America or around the world. It’s easy to pass on something having been repeated for decades. It takes work to dig up the truth.

Yesterday I was reading a piece written by Dr. Valerius Geist, Professor Emeritus of Environmental Science, The University of Calgary, Calgary, Canada. The article (Valerius Geist, 2008. Commentary. The Danger of Wolves. Wildlife Professional Vol 2, No. 4 pp. 34-35. Winter 2008 edition), titled “Who or What Killed Kenton Carnegie?”, exposes us to not only the court case that decided that it was wolves that killed him but why wolves killed Kenton Carnegie.

I first wrote about Carnegie’s tragic death back in January of 2006. As Dr. Geist points out in his writing, “Victims of wildlife tragedies in North America tend to be blamed for the event.”

We either choose to deny a wolf would attack and kill a human or in some cases, it’s all about just protecting the wolf and preserving it in what is often described as a “Disneyesque”.

It took a court hearing to finally decide that it were wolves that killed Kenton Carnegie. This has been supported by good science and yet people still claim bears killed him and wolves ate the free meal. Dr. Geist was part of a three-man team of scientists asked to investigate the attack.

They thus asked three scientists to look independently into the matter. One was Alaska biologist Mark McNay, the other was Brent Patterson of Ontario, the other was myself.

I would suppose that if we could turn our focus away from whether or not it were wolves that killed Carnegie and put it on why would wolves do this, then perhaps those willing to open their minds could better understand that what happened is not as “freak” an incident as some think.

Perpetuating myths such as “harmless wolves”, Geist describes as “well-established modern dogma. It is deadly!” Last January I published here at the Black Bear Blog, another work of Dr. Geist’s, “When Do Wolves Become Dangerous to Humans”, in which Dr. Geist tells us of the seven stages that lead up to a wolf attack on a human.

As part of the necessary understanding of wolf behavior, there is more to it than grabbing a clipboard and heading out to Yellowstone National Park and writing down what you see. There can be substantial differences in just culture as Dr. Geist points out.

How could one uphold the view that wolves are harmless to people, despite centuries of recorded experience to the contrary in Russia , Finland , Scandinavia, Germany , India , Afghanistan , Korea , central Asia, Turkey , Iran , France or Greenland ? In the first instance, the overwhelming experience in North America is that wolves are very shy, difficult to see creatures that avoid people. The causes of such were normally not investigated, although some authors pointed to the facts that wolves were very much prosecuted and thus rare in 20th century North America, and that North Americans are usually armed and quickly eliminated troublesome wolves. Moreover, the killing of wolves in rural settings is not newsworthy, as I can attest to from personal experience . It is thus very difficult from North American accounts to decipher the conditions when wolves are dangerous to people and when they are not.

Where did we get the myth that only sick and rabid wolves will bother people?

What about Eurasian wolves? Are they different, and is their behavior thus irrelevant to an understanding of North American wolves? Or are the accounts of wolf attacks on people exaggerated and untrustworthy, and the Little Red Riding Hood fairytale by the brothers Grimm based on misunderstanding, ignorance and exaggerated fears? A respected Canadian biologist, Dr. C. H. Doug Clarke, decided to investigate . He concluded that the killing of people by wolves in Europe was real, but that rabid wolves caused all the attacks. In exonerating healthy wolves, Clarke fell back on his experience with shy Canadian continental wilderness wolves, an experience much as my own and shared by others. One can trace the origin of the “harmless wolf myth” to him . And yet Clark erred! He failed to notice the distinction in behavior between attacks by rabid and by non-rabid wolves. There are differences!

It is difficult, at best, to put much credibility in the lack of reported wolf attacks over the centuries worldwide. Dr. Geist says that these reports are not scientific data and, “are usually reports by witnesses as recorded second hand by the police, priests, doctors and county clerks.” He says it then becomes the job of scientists to employ the help of historians to “locate, verify, clarify and place into perspective”. The scientist can then put together patterns and trends. This isn’t being done.

Dr. Geist explains the conditions under which humans and wolves can coexist.

The historical and current evidence indicates that one can live with wolves where such are severely limited in numbers on an ongoing basis, so that there is continually a buffer of wild prey and livestock between wolves and humans, with an ongoing removal of all wolves habituating to people. The current notion that wolves can be made to co-exist with people in settled landscapes (in multi-use landscapes surrounding houses, farms, villages and cities) is not tenable. Under such conditions wolves becoming territorial will confront people when such walk dogs or approach wolf-killed livestock. In addition even well fed habituated wolves will test people by approaching such, initially nipping at their clothing and licking exposed skin, before mounting a clumsy first attack that may leave victims alive but injured, followed by serious attacks.

If you will take notice of how Dr. Geist describes the behavior of well fed wolves “testing” humans as part of their learning curve. If you will recall, last week I posted a story with links about two men who were elk hunting in Montana. One hunter who was from S. Carolina, after returning home, decided to call Montana officials and report that while hunting they were “approached” by a pack of wolves.

The circumstances of the story have led some to believe the hunters were lying about what happened. If you pay attention to how one hunter described what happened and compare it to what Dr. Geist has learned about wolf behavior, you would have to conclude that either the man has read Dr. Geist or perhaps it really did happen. Here’s what he described.

“They circled around us, and doggone if they didn’t cut us off. There was a dark one right in the trail about 40 feet in front of us,” Habel said. “John could have had a spine shot but decided not to take it because of the bear. I couldn’t shoot because John was in front of me and my barrel was too close. I couldn’t jeopardize the boy. Then things happened fast.”

“I could hear others, and then we heard this sound; they were sniffing us out, straining their lungs. It’s a crazy sound. And then that sound rippled up the hill. Then they started barking and all hell broke loose and they charged us,”

As much credit as some people give wolves on their intelligence, agility, craftiness and natural abilities to formulate and carry out a kill, this sounds like what Dr. Geist described as a “clumsy first attack”.

What would change if we were willing to admit that wolves will attack and kill humans? Wolf protectors fear that such an admission would immediately set off a chain of events that would result in the mass killing of the animal. That assumption is quite far fetched in my opinion.

What would change is that we could begin a campaign to educate people about real wolf behavior. Arming people with factual information is far better than telling them something that is not true and then hope for the best.

As better studies are conducted that now refute many of the old accounts, records and books of wolves, it is irresponsible not to let people know the truth about wolf behavior. It could save a life.

Did Kenton Carnegie know that he was in danger of being attacked and killed by wolves. I don’t know but my guess is he didn’t understand the stages, as Dr. Geist describes, that wolves will take before attacking.

At Points North Landing in Northern Saskatchewan, Canada where Carnegie was killed, just days prior to his death, two other people had been attacked by wolves. Dr. Geist says it was unfortunate that nobody recognized the behavior as that leading to an all out attack on another human being.

Tom Remington