Misconceptions

“No, Wolves don’t attack people”

In Europe the wolf is not considered a dangerous species for humans.

One of the most frequent clichés in recent wolf recolonization areas is “We can no longer leave our children alone to take the bus because they will be attacked and devoured by wolves”.

First point: the wolf does not identify humans as prey. Its diet consists mainly of wild ungulates (deer, roe deer, chamois, wild boar, fallow deer) and it is generally wary of humans, which it considers as a potential threat to be avoided if possible.

In Italy and France, where the wolf is now present and widespread also in hilly and mountain areas (e.g. Western Alps) where tourist attendance is intense, sightings are still infrequent and no accidents with people have been documented. In fact, the wolf normally goes away trying to avoid the encounter with humans.

Like all wild animals, the wolf could show unpredictable attitudes, even aggressive, if it perceives a threat. Since it is a wild animal, behaving respectfully is a must: in case you come across animals that are feeding or across a litter or a wolf that is scared, injured or in trouble and unable to escape, it is the best to keep your distance and move away.

But then, where does the wolf’s bad reputation come from?

Archival documents (e.g. parish archives, chronicles, annals, ordinances, notices, edicts, …) report wolf attacks since the Middle Ages in rural and alpine contexts very different from those of today, where the human presence was greater and widespread and the number of wild prey available to the wolf much less. In the countryside and in the cultivated and deforested alpine landscapes of a century ago, people and wolves (probably also stray dogs) were in direct competition for space and food resources. In these documents of the time, episodes of aggression by wolves for food purposes are reported: the victims were often children or women left alone to watch the animals grazing, a widespread practice in Italy and other alpine countries until the early 1900s. The method to determine the responsibility for the attack was totally subjective, unlike today where the contribution of genetic analysis on biological samples (e.g. saliva on the bite) allows for an objective and robust finding of the predator’s responsibility. In Europe, at least since the end of the Second World War (except for one doubtful case that  happened in 1946), there have been no more attacks on humans for food purposes.

A significant number of attacks (fatal or not) on people registered in the past in Europe were caused by wolves suffering from rabies.  

Today there are accidents between wolves and people especially in areas of the world where rabies is still present and in very different contexts from those in Europe (e.g. in Asia). Outside of these critical areas, in Europe and North America the risk of being attacked by a wolf is considered very low, given the case history of documented attacks in relation to the number of wolves in the various populations. However, it cannot be excluded absolutely, for example by wolves defined as bold or problematic.

For example, with a population of about 60,000 wolves in North America in the period 2002-2012, only two episodes of people killed by a predatory attack by wolves not suffering from diseases were recorded (source: Alaska Department of Fish and Game). These episodes concern remote areas with levels of anthropization that are not even remotely comparable to those in the Alps. To learn more about the incidents between wolves and people in the world, the most complete and updated document (even if it is from 2002) is The fear of wolves. A review of wolf attacks on humans, freely downloadable also in French.