Wolf Song of Alaska News

Understanding Wolves

Krestia DeGeorge / Anchorage Press / March 24, 2010

Strange as it may sound, there’s a page on Wikipedia devoted exclusively to wolf attacks on humans. And the bulk of that page is devoted to a grisly catalogue of such attacks that ended in the deaths of humans.

Journalists are generally loathe to admit that they spend any reporting time on Wikipedia, and human beings are generally loathe to spend any time reading long lists, yet despite that this still seems like a natural place to begin a column about wolves.

For one thing, the list is unusually well-sourced for a Wikipedia page, which puts hours of additional reading on the subject at your fingertips. Perhaps more interestingly, though, are the small, odd insights the macabre list offers upon closer inspection. Record-keeping, for instance, plays a role; among the earliest recorded wolf attacks are those that occurred in places such as Japan, which have a long history of literacy. Sad patterns emerge, such as the four girls killed in the fall of 1944 in Russia’s Kirovskaya Oblast—and an outsized number of attacks in Russia more generally. An entry for 1450 in Paris reminds us that even the world’s densest cities were once subject to the terrors of the wilderness.

Details that humanize the victims—an African-American in Kentucky in 1830, for example, or a “Farmer named Shōzaemon” in 1762 in Japan who survived the initial attack only to succumb to the rabies—heighten the sense of loss and horror.

Sure, we all know that many millions more died in the warfare and genocide of the 20th century than in this handful of cases. Yet somehow these deaths—with the primal fears they stoke—seem more horrifying.

At the time of this writing, the list is topped by a name that most Alaskans with any connection to a media outlet will recognize.

Candice Berner, a schoolteacher in Chignik Lake, was discovered earlier this month, the victim of what an autopsy later determined to be a wolf attack. Alaska Fish and Game eventually shot at least some of the wolves they believe were involved in the attack, and tests showed no signs of rabies.

Berner’s death comes with something of an air of finality to it.

Although there’ve been other accounts—including an extremely likely case in Saskatchewan in 2005—this appears to be the first completely confirmed case of wolves killing a human being in North America (some evidence in the Saskatchewan case suggested a black bear). Whatever lingering doubt there may’ve been about the ability of wolves on this continent to kill humans under the right circumstances, Berner’s death erased that.

That seems meaningful… and yet somehow also not meaningful.

On the one hand, it shatters—or at any rate provides a crucial nail to the coffin of—the simple notion that humans and other apex predators can enjoy a free and easy cohabitation.

Practical arguments for wolf protections and reintroductions in the Lower 48 or against aerial hunting or the rollback of buffer zones here in Alaska will remain intact. But the narrative created by Farley Mowat and a generation he inspired—that of wolves being essentially harmless and misunderstood creatures—withers. Or at least the “harmless” part does.

The attack on Berners only underscores how poorly we still understand wolves.

In 1978, Barry Lopez addressed that problem in his book Of Wolves and Men, which included a section based on the experiences of Robert Stephenson, an Alaska Fish and Game biologist who went to Anaktuvuk Pass to study the animals. The following passage compares Native and Western ways of knowing the wolf (some of which overlap) and it’s worth quoting at length:

“When you spend time with the Nunamuit, however, it is not such encapsulated data that fascinates you so much after a while. The wolf the Eskimo sees is a variable creature who does things because he is a certain age, or because it is a warm day, or because he is hungry. Everything depends on so many other things. Amaguk may be a wolf with a family who hunts with more determination than a yearling wolf who has no family to feed. He may be an old wolf alone on the tundra, tossing a piece of caribou hide up in the air and running to catch it. He may be an ill-tempered wolf who always tries to kill trespassing wolves wandering in his territory. Or he may be a wolf who toys with a red-backed mouse in the morning and kills a moose in the afternoon.”

It’s that human-like variability in wolf personalities, I think—combined with their deadliness—that fascinates and frightens us.

A character in one of G. K. Chesterton’s novels put it thus: “This is what tries the nerves, abstraction combined with cruelty. Men have felt it sometimes when they went through wild forests, and felt that the animals there were at once innocent and pitiless. They might ignore or slay.”

The natural inclination in such a situation—or one natural reaction anyway—is to try to reach for some sort of certainty.

But all our experience thus far—with wolves, as with the wider world—suggests that we can’t hope to ever fully know, only to know more.



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