A reason to cry wolf

April 28, 2000

As wolf populations multiply, so do attacks on people and livestock. Steve Farrar reports on a clash between academics and 'wolf huggers' over how to respond.

James Howell caught a fleeting glimpse of the animal as it padded purposefully into the midst of his campsite. He thought he had seen a dog. He was wrong. Moments later, he looked up to see the timber wolf seize his 19-month-old son Daniel. Howell yelled out. The wolf abandoned the toddler and retreated back between the trees.

Daniel ended up with several stitches, a tetanus jab and a scar that one day he could brag about to his friends. The wolf, on the other hand, was tracked down by the Canadian park rangers and shot. They were aware that a wolf that appeared not to fear humans had been haunting the Algonquin Park for months. Hundreds of sightings had been reported, though often by thrilled rather than scared campers.

Just two days earlier the rangers had posted warnings about the animal's presence after a family resorted to pepper spray to drive it away. James Howell had read the notices but the presence of wolves was part of the park's attraction.

For the park's naturalists the attack in September 1998 was a wake-up call. They had assured visitors for years that the wolves did not pose a serious threat. Rick Stronks, a park naturalist, said there had been three attacks on people by "fearless" wolves in the previous 14 years, one that left a teenage boy with facial injuries after he had been dragged head-first from his sleeping bag.

In each case, the wolf in question had been seen hanging around people for some time beforehand, strange behaviour from a species that is usually shy of human contact.

Before the Daniel Howell incident, Stronks says, the rangers were unconvinced that the wolves posed a serious threat to humans.

For 35 years the rangers had protected wolves that would previously have been killed. As a result, their numbers had steadily crept up. But now circumstance dictated a new approach. While most wolves continued to avoid people, it was recognised that a tiny minority were different. Plans were drawn up so that when a wolf appeared to be getting too familiar with humans, it would be shot before it had the chance to attack.

"We are thrilled that visitors get to see a wild animal, but if a wolf harmed or killed a child, not only would it be devastating to the family, but also for the reputation of the wolf, which we have been trying to change for years," Stronks says.

It is a solution that has upset some animal rights advocates - dubbed "wolf huggers" by the naturalists - but Stronks and his colleagues believe it is the only hope of avoiding a catastrophe.

WOLVES MAY STAGE HIGHLAND RETURN

The last wolf in Scotland is reputed to have been killed in 1743.

South of the border the wolf became extinct three centuries earlier.

As its habitat and wild prey were lost to the expansion of agriculture, the animal increasingly clashed with herdsmen.

Once numerous in the British Isles, it was systematically wiped out.

The wolf may be the earliest recorded species extinction in Britain, but it joins a long list of native species of mammals wiped out over the past millennium, including wild boar, beaver, elk and brown bear.

Plans to reintroduce the wolf to this country have met with scepticism, particularly in the Scottish highlands where such projects are based.

One conservationist recently observed that enthusiasm to bring the wolf back to the north seems to increase the further south you go.

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