Who’s afraid of the big bad wolf?
Apparently a majority of Americans. Over the last 200 years grey wolves have been almost eradicated from the lower 48 states, with only minimal numbers left in Montana, Wisconsin, Idaho and Wyoming. There are still decent populations left in Alaska and Canada, but with the current popular attitude toward the grey wolf, their livelihood is in danger.
Red Riding Hood did not help the modern view of wolves. The tales and stories of wild wolves attacking children are actually based on fact. In Europe, wolf attacks used to happen quite frequently. In France alone, between 1580 and 1830, over 3,000 people were killed by wolves, with almost 2,000 from a non-rabid wolf. In Scotland, wolves were seen as a huge threat to travelers and special houses were erected on the side of the highways for protection. During World War One, people weren’t the only ones staving. The wolves gathered in great numbers and attacked fighting forces in Russia as a source of food.
There are very few records of wolf attacks in North America. In fact, there are only two documented deaths in the 21st century, and only 49 cases of aggression towards humans since 1942. Most of these cases are seen by specialists as a result of habituation — living in close proximity to humans and thus approaching them too closely. Also, attackers tend to be lone wolves, and as wolves generally work in packs, the loners have probably been ostracized, which can explain some abnormal behavior.
Wolves are incredibly powerful creatures. The biting capacity for a wolf is 1,500 pounds of pressure per square inch. Imagine them biting through the femur of a moose in about 7 bites. To offer a comparison, the biting pressure for a german shepherd is half that, at 750 pounds per square inch, and humans are coming in low at 300 pounds per square inch.
But wolves need these incredibly powerful tools to capture and eat their prey. The main food source for grey wolves are large hoofed mammals like deer, moose, elk, caribou, oxen, and mountain goat. Working in packs, wolves will travel long distances in search of their prey, using primarily their power of scent, though they must be directly downwind to detect it. Wolves also tend to need the stimulus of a running animal to proceed with an attack. If their prey stands its ground, then the wolves either ignore it and move on, or try to intimidate it into running.
This behavior illuminates many of the documented attacks. Of the two deaths in North America, one was a jogger and the other is suspected of trying to feed the wolves. Most all other wild wolf attacks are a case of the wolf having rabies. The rest of documented attacks tend to be from wolves in captivity. Wolves may react aggressively under provocation, but these attacks are generally limited to rapid bites on arms and legs, and the wolf retreating. For everyday Americans, there is a much greater likelihood of being in a car accident caused by a deer than of having any kind of aggressive encounter with a wild wolf.
Images courtesy of Wikipedia