When I wrote about the Beast of Gévaudan, I came to the conclusion that the ferocious creature was a previously unknown type of wolf:
For some unknown reason, it was being forced westwards from its normal habitat of the Polish or Russian primeval forests such as Białowieża. If ancient bison could live there, so could something even more prehistoric:
At the time I did research the likelihood that the Beast was an ordinary wolf or wolves but I rejected that as a theory because I did not think that wolves would eat human beings.
It would be dishonest, however, not to make it patently clear that in the past, wolves certainly have eaten people but they don’t seem to now. Why should this be?
Firstly, extremes of weather centuries ago, more severe than what we have now, may have lead to a situation where wolves either ate any available prey items or just died. This would account for the Wolves of Paris which I have previously discussed:
In actual fact they may also have acquired a taste for human flesh by eating corpses. Apparently, until as late as 1820, corpses in France were frequently thrown into open charnel pits. Presumably, these were paupers, drunks, stillborn babies, in short, anybody dead without the money for a funeral. And it is not outrageous to presume that this lovely way to dispose of the late dearly departed might have taken place in neighbouring countries too. An unfortunate situation that taught wolves to associate the scent of Man with a full belly.
If the hungry wolf wanted a better quality of prime human meat, young, and blood drippingly fresh, the best place was the battlefield straight after the battle. Once the local peasantry had stripped the bodies of everything valuable, they were not buried, but were gradually eaten by the ravens and other corvids, the eagles, both golden and especially white-tailed, and most of all, the local wolf pack.
This association of human flesh, its scent and taste, with a full stomach, was a recipe for disaster when wolves came across, say, lone travellers or children picking berries deep in the woods. And don’t forget. In France the peasantry were forbidden to own firearms to reduce the admittedly tiny risk of a blood spattering revolution.
Nowadays, the situation is completely different. Admittedly France had 7,600 fatal attacks by wolves between 1200–1900 but there has been nothing since. Italy has a population of wolves but without any fatal attacks on humans since 1945 and no attacks by wolves since the eradication of rabies in the 1960s.
In the Baltic states, where rabies is still allowed to exist, just under a hundred people were bitten between 1992-2000 in Latvia and Lithuania, although the statistics are muddied somewhat in Estonia by the locals’ love for wolf-dog hybrids and keeping wolves captive on their properties.
And what about North America?
Well, in 2002, the Alaska Department of Fish and Game stated that there had been no human deaths in North America attributed to wild, healthy wolves since at least 1900. Concerns were caused though, when, on April 26th, 2000, a six year-old boy was attacked by a wolf in Icy Bay, Alaska. He was not killed, but then, on November 8th 2005 the body of Kenton Carnegie was found in northern Saskatchewan. He had died from “injuries consistent with a wolf attack.” The local wolves had apparently lost their fear of him because he fed them regularly.
To increase the risk, natural food was scarce in the area at the time and four wolves had been feeding on rubbish tips in the previous weeks. They were no longer scared by human activities. On November 4th, two of Kenton’s fellow campers clashed with two extremely aggressive wolves. Zoologists have now said that this was probably an “exploratory attack” just to see how difficult it was to kill a human being. Another perhaps more serious attack was imminent.
On the day of his demise, Kenton ignored warnings from his companions and went for a walk in the woods. It took the Coroners’ jury two years to rule out Black Bear, but their eventual verdict was “Death by Wolf”.
On March 8th 2010, Candice Berner, a thirty two year old special education teacher who had only been in Alaska since the previous August was killed by two, perhaps three, wolves as she jogged along a road outside Chignik Lake. It was late afternoon.
This was the first ever fatal wolf attack in Alaska. David Mech, a senior research scientist with the U.S. Geological Survey has studied wolves for more than fifty years. He said:
“There have been about two dozen nonfatal attacks in North America in the past century or so. Most involve wolves that have become habituated to people who have been feeding them at campgrounds, dumps and other sites near wolf habitat.”
Ms Berner was only 4 feet 10 inches tall and weighed just over eight stones (c 112 pounds). David Mech said that her slight, almost childlike build, and the fact that she was running may have attracted the wolves, who, after all, are predators by nature:
“Wolves are very much like dogs in a lot of respects. Things that are running, they have tendency to want to chase them,”
Ms Berner was thought to have been listening to music on a headset, but Dr Mech discounted this, as in his experience wolves move so silently that the wind is enough to mask their presence completely.
Whatever you think about wolves, the truth is that the inhabitants of the tiny village of Chignik Lake have lived alongside wild animals since time immemorial:
This one attack has spooked all of the 73 inhabitants of the area, so remote that it can only be reached by aeroplane. The school’s stuffed wolf mascot had been there a good while, but now it has been kicked well into touch. The wolf badge of the school will also have to go if Virginia Aleck, a local woman, gets her way.
She said that everyone felt trapped in the village. None of the surrounding hills were considered safe anymore. Nobody walked on their own and everybody carried a rifle.
Is this an over-reaction? Or are wolves just a part of living outside the big city? I’ll try to answer that question in a future article.