In Russia, the big bad wolf is for real, says an important new book.
In the heat of media frenzy about the environment, one must always remember to think critically and be on alert for romanticism, exaggeration and what Teddy Roosevelt called "nature fakers."
In the U.S., we have been led to believe that wolves are not dangerous to people. In books and movies like Farley Mowat's "Never Cry Wolf", Michael Blake's "Dances With Wolves," and Barry Lopez's "Of Wolves and Men", wolves are "nature's sanitarians" who prefer eating lemmings more than larger mammals. They are presented as secretive, adverse to attacking humans and may even friendly to people, like dogs.
The cry of a wolf is a voice of nature that touches the soul, but the image of a big good wolf is directly challenged by a new book, "Wolves In Russia" written by Will N. Graves (Detslig, 2007) and edited by Canadian wildlife biologist Dr. Valerius Geist.
To put things in context, wolves were largely exterminated from heavily armed North America a hundred years ago. A 1997 CNN article states that over two million wolves have been killed in the US.
Wolves are intelligent and adaptable. Those that remained learned that to stay alive meant being elusive, secretive and keeping away from humans.
The CNN article asserts that there has never been a single documented attack on a human by a healthy wolf in the US. This position is completed countered by a lengthy and detailed description of wolf attacks on people in North America in the last 150 years, written by T.R. Mader, Research Director of the Abundant Wildlife Society of North America.
But let's stay focused on "Wolves in Russia": The book blows the lid off the information embargo on Russian wolves, and what we learn is not comforting. There are more wolves in Russia than any other country in the world, and those wolves have evolved in a culture with very few firearms owned by the general populace and scant hunters.
That we have not heard more about indigenous wolves since the fall of Czarist Russia, Graves says, is a function of the Communist government suppressing such information. If people knew how really dangerous wolves were, Graves asserts, the people would demand to be well-armed, but an armed populace could lead to revolution.
During the last century, wolf numbers in Russia have risen and fallen through five cycles. When wolf populations became large, special hunting efforts were organized to reduce them. When the population was lowered, the hunting efforts were disbanded and the wolf populations began to rise again.
The greatest number of wolves occurred during WWI and WWII, when men were called off to war. The general populace of Russia has few firearms. In the absence of men and without firearms, the wolf population grew quickly, as much as 30% per year.
Wolves are voracious predators. Moose and reindeer are their favorite wild game, but deer also are commonly eaten. They prefer large animals, as smaller animals take up too much energy for the payoff.
A pack of 3-5 wolves will kill an average of two reindeer or caribou every three days. They can eat 6-7 pounds of meat per day; over 10 pounds if they have not eaten for awhile. That translates into 1.5 tons of meat per wolf per year.
Contrary to some authors, Graves asserts that Russian wolves prefer healthy prey, not sick or diseased animals. They seem to enjoy indulging in "surplus killing," running havoc through herbs of animals, or even through villages, killing more than they can eat and leaving the surplus carcasses for scavengers.
Wolves are known to travel long distances. They may kill, eat and then travel 10-50 miles in a day or two.
When wolves run out of wild meat, domestic livestock comes next. Always, wolves test conditions. If humans do not appear to be a threat, they move closer, driven by hunger and the love of killing, taking pets, eating garbage, and ultimately, stalking people.
There are many, many accounts of wolves attacking people in Russia. As many as 80% of the attacks are by rabid wolves, but at least 20% are perfectly healthy wolves. The worst attacks on humans tend to come from wolf-dog hybrids, as well as wolves that have lost all fear of people.
An especially troubling problem with wolves is that they may carry hoof and mouth disease, as well as anthrax. They also carry tapeworms, which can be contracted by humans through inhalation, as the eggs of some tapeworms can be airborne. The scat of wolves that are infected will almost always carry worms.
A healthy, athletic man may beat off an attack by one wolf, but he will always lose to a pack, unless he is well-armed. One reason why we have not had as many wolf attacks on people in North America is that the populace is armed.
Wolves in North America are not supposed to attack people, but the reality of fatal wolf attacks in North America became real on November 8, 2005: 22-year-old Kenton Carnegie, while walking through the woods of Saskatchewan, was killed by a pack of four wolves that had become habituated to a garbage dump.
Some people have tried to argue that Carnegie was killed by a bear, but a November 4, 2007, coroner's inquest on Carnegie's death found that wolves had indeed killed the young engineer.
In 2000, wolves on Vargas Island in British Columbia attacked kayaker Scott Langevin, 23. Some report that these wolves had become habituated and were used to being fed by people. Wolves attacked another man in Saskatchewan on New Year's Eve in 2005 who also survived.
The importance of Wolves In Russia and the recent reports of wolf attacks in Canada is that with all the efforts to restore wolves in North America, we cannot forget that wolves are ultimately very efficient and voracious predators. They will stay away from people if the populace is armed and food is available, but hunger and loss of danger will result in wolves progressively approaching people as potential prey.
In parks, where wolves are being re-introduced, the general public is not armed and there is often an abundance of game. With plentiful food, wolf pack numbers can grow rapidly. When elk and deer numbers dwindle, wolves' diet will switch to other things: livestock, garbage, and possibly two-legged creatures that are virtually defenseless. The end result may be wolf attacks on park visitors.
Wolves have a place in the ecosystem of North America. They are majestic animals. But as we reintroduce them back into our wild lands, let us not forget that for thousands of years, the relationship between wolf and man has been mutual predation. According to "Wolves In Russia", to expect modern wolves to all behave nicely like those in "Dances With Wolves" or "Never Cry Wolf" is naïve and dangerous.
Endorsed by numerous wildlife biologists, "Wolves In Russia" took over 40 years for Graves, a USDA Livestock Inspector and Vaccinator who learned Russian in the US Air Force, to write. Graves' skills as a linguist have unearthed a wealth of previously unexplored data from a vast array of sources and integrated it into a provocative thesis that wolf behavior is both learned and instinctive.
His editor, Dr. Valerius Geist, is a well-respected Professor Emeritus of Environmental Science from the University of Calgary who has checked Grave's sources and confirms the accuracy of the work.
This book must be read by every serious wildlife biologist, resource decision maker and park manager, as well as the recreation-minded, for it clearly shows that co-existence between man and animal has limits that can never be forgotten.
"Wolves In Russia", 228 pages, paperback, is $26.75. It may be purchased from the Publisher, Temeron Detselig, or directly from the author, Will Graves, through his Web site http://www.wolvesinrussia.com/.
This is book is going to make some folks howl.
James Swan — who has appeared in more than a dozen feature films, including "Murder in the First" and "Star Trek: First Contact," as well as the television series "Nash Bridges," "Midnight Caller" and "Modern Marvels" — is the author of the book "In Defense of Hunting." Click to purchase a copy. To learn more about Swan, visit his Web site.