Sixteen-year-old Noah Graham of Solway is lucky to be alive after being attacked without warning by a wolf while sitting at a campfire with friends last month on Lake Winnibigoshish near the town of Bemidji in far northern Minnesota.
“I had to reach behind me and jerk my head out of its mouth,” he reported, after which he leaped to his feet and fought back until the wolf fled. He suffered a four-inch gash on his scalp, closed with 17 staples — “the worst pain of my life” — and required a series of rabies shots. Meanwhile, Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR) officials, who called Noah’s experience the first documented serious-injury wolf attack on a human in Minnesota, jumped to the wolf’s defense asserting that a wolf killed nearby — it may not be the attacking wolf — had a “jaw deformity.”
Defenders of Wildlife (DOW), which might as well call itself Defenders of Wolves — they even have a statue of one outside their headquarters — said it was “surprised” by the attack. DOW went further than the DNR noting not only that the wolf “had some malformation of its jaw” but also that it was “reportedly habituated to humans.” But DOW downplayed the incident contending that “only two known deaths have occurred from wild wolf attacks across all of North America in modern history.” That is a bit of an understatement and far from a full and accurate accounting of the dangers to mankind from wolves, but DOW has come a long way in truth telling about the wolf since the 1990s.
Back then, DOW persuaded the Walt Disney Company to include the following disclaimer in its 1991 film adaptation of Jack London’s novel White Fang, the tale of a young man’s adventures during the Alaskan gold rush and his friendship with a wolf: “Jack London’s White Fang is a work of fiction. There has never been a documented case of a healthy wolf or pack of wolves attacking a human in North America.” That was followed by a statement bemoaning so-called “persecution” of the wolf and calling for the introduction of the wolf into “wilderness areas.”
Thanks to lobbying efforts like these, and the willingness of the Clinton administration to accede to the demands of DOW and other environmental groups, wolves were reintroduced in Yellowstone National Park in 1994 and quickly spread over a 500-mile radius to all corners of Idaho, Montana, and Wyoming. Earlier this month, a pack of wolves stampeded 176 sheep — two were bitten and killed; one was half eaten; the others died of asphyxiation.
Notwithstanding DOW’s disclaimer, how likely was it that in the half a millennium since Europeans arrived in North America, a wolf had never attacked a human being? A quick check revealed the truth: not likely at all. Renowned painter John James Audubon reported a wolf attack upon two men — one of whom was killed — in Kentucky in about 1830. Noted historian George B. Grinnell investigated and confirmed a wolf attack on an 18-year old girl in 1881 in northwestern Colorado. A North Dakota newspaper reported an attack by wolves that killed a father and son near New Rockford in 1888. In 1942, a section foreman for the Canadian Pacific Railway was attacked by a wolf as reported by an Investigator Crichton, a conservation officer. In 1987, a 16-year-old girl was bitten by a wolf in Algonquin Provincial Park in Ontario. Then, in 1996, a family was attacked by a wolf; the family’s 12-year old son had his face torn open and permanently disfigured, despite four hours of surgery and 80 stitches.
Confronted with this evidence, DOW defended its disclaimer by asserting that all attacks by wolves on humans in North American had not been “scientifically” documented; were the result of attacks by “tame” wolves; were not “attacks” since DOW “did not characterize” instances where people had been bitten by wolves as “attacks” or were not “serious” attacks. In addition, DOW presumed both that an attacking wolf was not healthy unless its health was documented “scientifically” and that an attacking wolf was not wild unless documentation exists that it was never in captivity.
Perhaps DOW abandoned its White Fang disclaimer because the evidence to the contrary was so overwhelming. After a wolf attacked and repeatedly bit a 6-year old boy in April of 2000 near Icy Bay, Alaska, the State of Alaska began a study of 80 wolf-human contacts in Alaska and Canada, which it published in 2002. Since then, the reports continue to pile up. In November of 2008, in an episode called by one expert, the “best investigated case to date,” a 22-year old honors and scholarship student, Kenton Joel Carnegie, was killed in northern Saskatchewan by a pack of wolves. In March of 2008, Candice Berner of Slippery Rock, Pennsylvania, a special education teacher in Perryville, Alaska, was killed near Chignik Lake by at least two wolves. In October of 2011, a North Idaho grandmother on a hunting trip for elk was attacked by a 100-pound wolf; she unholstered the .44 Magnum on her hip and shot and killed the animal. In December of 2012, a wolf attacked a trapper riding a snowmobile near Tok, Alaska; Lance Grangaard fought back but sustained a three inch gash on his arm and underwent rabies inoculations. And so on and so on and so on.
In spite of these documented cases, DOW continues to label wolf attacks on humans “exceedingly rare.” As Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D-NY) said, “Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not his own facts.” Whether or not the number of wolf attacks actually meets that definition, they’ve at least downplayed certain incidents, leaving the public misinformed, and potentially at greater risk.