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Dr. Valerius Geist, a Professor Emeritus of Environmental Science at the University of Calgary, has years of studies in wildlife, including wolves and personal encounters with them. In a republished article I did two years ago, Geist provided for us the seven stages of behavior by wolves leading to an attack on a human. These seven stages are well documented throughout history and yet mostly misunderstood or misinterpreted until Dr. Geist was able to piece them all together.

1) Within the pack’s territory prey is becoming scarce not only due to increased predation on native prey animals, but also by the prey evacuating home ranges en mass, leading to a virtual absence of prey. Or wolves increasingly visit garbage dumps at night.

2) Wolves in search of food began to approach human habitations – at night!

3) The wolves appear in daylight and observe people doing their daily chores at some distance. Wolves excel at learning by close, steady observation. They approach buildings during daylight.

4) Small bodied livestock and pets are attacked close to buildings even during the day. The wolves act distinctly bolder in the actions.

5) The wolves explore large livestock, leading to docked tails, slit ears and hocks. Livestock may bolt through fences running for the safety of barns. When the first seriously wounded cattle are found they tend to have severe injuries to the udders, groin and sexual organs and need to be put down. The actions of wolves become more brazen and cattle or horses may be killed close to houses and barns where the cattle or horses were trying to find refuge. Wolves may follow riders and surround them. They may mount verandas and look into windows.

6) Wolves turn their attention to people and approach them closely, initially merely examining them closely for several minutes on end. This is a switch from establishing territory to targeting people as prey. The wolves may make hesitant, almost playful attacks biting and tearing clothing, nipping at limbs and torso. They withdraw when confronted. They defend kills by moving toward people and growling and barking at them from 10 – 20 paces away.

7) Wolves attack people. These initial attacks are clumsy, as the wolves have not yet learned how to take down the new prey efficiently. Persons attacked can often escape because of the clumsiness of the attacks.

I have summarized the information above as provided by Dr. Geist in his publication. Please follow the link and read the important information about this 7-step process.

Yesterday I posted an article that appeared in the Missoulian in 1916 about wolves killing 113 people and 2,000 animals in one year in Korea. One thing in that article that I failed to point out to readers was an account of how wolves would attack people.

In attacking a man it will follow him for a time and occasionally leap over his head, seeking to unnerve him and cause him to fall to the ground, when it will immediately attack and kill. Oftentimes it will summon its mates to assist in attacking.

Compare that account of nearly 100 years ago with Dr. Geist’s stages 6 and 7 above.

The Western Institute for Study of the Environment posted more of this same information yesterday, along with real life accounts in Idaho of the implementation of these stages by wolves taking place there in the state. WISE also provides links to several articles dealing with human habituation by wolves and coyotes and the consequences that can follow. (required reading)

In a newspaper account of the Lewiston Tribune, January 15, 2010, Eric Barker describes what an Idaho outfitter experienced while waiting for a school bus to arrive and pick up his children.

Popp took his children to their bus stop Monday morning and sat in his jeep while his 6- and 8-year-olds had a snowball fight. The bus pulled up, stopped and flashed its lights. The kids got on and the bus driver pulled into a driveway to turn around. When the driver backed up, the bus emitted warning beeps. After it pulled away, three wolves came out of the woods and walked down the road toward Popp.

He started his jeep and drove toward the animals. They left the road and Popp followed their tracks to see where they had come from. He said it was clear they were sitting in the woods about 30 feet away from the road prior to the arrival of the bus.

“While we were there at the bus stop and those kids were snowball-fighting I know they could hear, and they just sat there,” he said. “They are really becoming habituated to all the sights and sounds that are out there.” …

Dr. Geist responded to this account by saying:

This is absolutely classic! Wolves targeting people sit and watch people. Unlike dogs, wolves and coyotes are refined observation learners.

The a) to h) steps [seven stages] you published below are my addition to Will’s book [Wolves in Russia: Anxiety Through the Ages] (Appendix authorship was left out by oversight); the original paper given in 2005 is now in press, belatedly. A very similar progression was reported in 1999 for urban coyotes targeting children in urban parks by Bob Timm and Rex Baker. Over 200 attacks on children are reported. We are currently co-authoring a paper on this. So, wolves and coyotes target people in an identical manner!(emphasis added)

It is imperative for people venturing into the outdoors and/or living in wolf and coyote populated regions to understand the entire seven stages of behavior. Separately each stage is quite innocuous, with the exception of the final attack. This isn’t an attempt to try to scare people. This information could save a life.

If one will recall documented accounts of encounters with wolves and coyotes, you’ll find that some or all of these stages have been documented. Because the seven stages are spread out over time, what we as humans witness are often just one of the seven stages. Aside from the actual attack itself on humans, livestock and pets, the rest of the stages seem somewhat harmless and as Dr. Geist describes them as “almost playful”.

If we can understand the seven stages and learn to recognize them, it might save a life. The next time you read about or witness an encounter with a wolf or coyote, think about the seven stages and see if you can make a determination as to which stage of behavior is being displayed. This behavior might also give you an indication of the health of the pack and the ecosystem near you.

Tom Remington