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Saturday, September 8, 2012

"The Grey," and wolves

Saw The Grey last night. It's about a group of roughnecks whose plane crashes somewhere in remote northern Alaska, who then have to defend themselves against a pack of wolves.

The movie was decent, though the wolves looked pretty fake. The little bit of computer animation that was used seemed to date from the pre-Jurassic Park era of filmmaking.

Liam Neeson was, as usual, excellent in a role that called for a no-nonsense tough guy, and the dialogue wasn't bad, though it did veer toward the pretentious (hence, The Grey, and not The Gray). The movie felt predictable until the end, which I'll admit surprised me.

What really struck me was how wolves were used as the villains. I'd always been under the vague impression that wolves shied away from humans, and that wolf attacks on humans were extremely rare.

So I looked it up on the internet and ran across this listing of attacks on Wikipedia. Turned out I was wrong: there have been many documented attacks on humans by wolves, especially in Europe and India.

Evidently Old World wolves are much less timid around humans than New World wolves are. There are conflicting theories about why, but the fact is, when colonists first arrived in America, they noted that while wolves were more numerous on this continent, they were also far less aggressive. (Which is not to say there haven't been killings in North America as well.)

Many wolf attacks have been by rabid animals; but there have been plenty of attacks by non-rabid wolves as well. (Rabid wolves generally just bite humans, whereas non-rabid wolves kill in order to eat.)

A few highlights:

From 1996-1997, 60 mostly prepubescent children were killed by wolves in Uttar Pradesh, India. (Wolves worldwide are more likely to see children as prey.)

From 1993 to 1995, 60 children were killed in Bihar State, India. (Wolf killings are often grouped like this because a solitary wolf or pack of wolves will start to see humans as a food source and then continue to kill them until they themselves are killed.)

From 1870 to 1887, 1445 people were killed by wolves in the European sector of Russia. In 1889, 203 people were killed there. (There is no listing for 1888, or from 1890 on.)

There were apparently a large number of wolf attacks, many fatal, on Soviet citizens on the Eastern Front during WWII. But the Soviet government squelched this information in order to minimize the apparent effects of their having disarmed the local populace. So this did not become widely known until after the fall of the Soviet Union.

Trapper Ben Cochrum was killed by wolves in 1922 in Manitoba. His remains were found among the corpses of 11 wolves, 7 of which had been shot and 4 of which had been clubbed to death. He evidently had kept fighting until the butt of his rifle was completely smashed. (Now that was a real man.)

In 1875, 721 people were killed in the Northwest Province and Bihar State in India.

In 1851, in Lorges Forest, France, a rabid wolf ran wild through nine villages, biting 40 people, 14 of whom subsequently died of rabies.

In 1833, 13 people were killed by a single rabid white wolf in western Wyoming.

From 1804 to 1853, non-rabid wolves killed 108 children, 2 men, and 1 woman in Estonia. (Given wolves' preference for smaller children, the European fairy tale of Little Red Riding Hood makes more sense.)

From 1763 to 1767, "The Beast of Gevaudan" and its whelps killed 99 people in France.

These large numbers, of course, beg the question of how well documented many of the older wolf killings actually were. I've always thought that some reported disappearances of humans, especially those which occurred a long time ago, have been false attributed to animals. Serial killers have become recognized in the past sixty or so years, but they have always existed. It would make sense that a serial killer, hearing of a local man-eater, could add his own killings to the total, secure in the knowledge that the disappearance of a few more children would be explained away as the work of the wolf.

But there is also no question that wolves do present a danger to humans, especially if they sense vulnerability. One such attack occurred as recently as 2010, when 32-year-old Candice Berner went jogging near Chignik Lake, a village southwest of Anchorage. Her mutilated body was later found surrounded by wolf tracks in the surrounding snow.

So the wolf attacks in The Grey were actually not that farfetched.


steve said...

The vast majority of accounts are precious short on details and are cut and pasted over and over from site to site. For example I have seen this one at least a dozen times, never with any more detail than is given here:

"In 1875, 721 people were killed in the Northwest Province and Bihar State in India."

Not one of the 721 people is named. I would be surprised if the actual number is even 72.

Wolves obviously occasionally attack humans for a variety of reasons but the number of attacks and fatalities is likely highly exagerated. There are certainly no modern examples of mass carnage like the incident quoited above even in areas where wolves are common other than the one from India, and, again, none of the child victims appear to even have names. That six or fewer magically morphed into 60 would not surprise me at all. There are also no documented instances of healthy wolves attacking significant numbers of men together like in the movie The Grey. It just doesn't happen. Even taking the numbers of claimed attacks at face value, the most dangerous animal to humans, bar none, is still the domestic dog.

John Craig said...

Steve --
Thank you for that; you could be right. Certainly accounts like these get exaggerated, and some of those numbers could be blown up.

On the other hand, it's possible they're true. The fact that the child victims do not have names doesn't mean they didn't exist. Whenever we hear of a modern tragedy, be it a tsunami in Indonesia or an earthquake in Italy, we hear of a death toll but it's not as if we ee a list of names; that doesn't mean that those numbers were grossly exaggerated.

Just looked up dog-caused fatalities, you're right about those. The CDC reported that between 1979 and 1998, there were 327 people killed by dogs in the US. (And the number seems to have gone up since,due to the prevalence of pit bulls these days.) A large percentage of those were evidently infants which were killed by a dog owned by the family. But the comparison to wolves is still apples to oranges: people have way, way more exposure to dogs than to wolves, which on a per capita basis, are still far more dangerous. In fact, 14 of those people were killed by wolf-dog hybrids, which are extremely rare and which are known to be basically impossible to domesticate.