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Are Wolves Dangerous to People?

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Wolves make great villains. They have threatened fictional characters from Little Red Riding Hood to the Three Little Pigs. In actuality, as humans have persecuted wolves for centuries, most wolves fear humans and avoid encounters. Wolves are undoubtedly capable of killing humans, but statistically speaking, the threat is negligible.

Wolf Basics

Wolves are currently restricted to parts of Canada and the northern United States, but they historically inhabited most of North America. Scientists recognize two species -- gray wolves (Canis lupus) and red wolves (Canis rufus) -- however, some contend that red wolves are hybrids between gray wolves and coyotes (Canis latrans). Wolves form packs that usually contain less than 10 members, but some exceptional packs have more than 30 individuals. Wolves demonstrate social hierarchies within their packs; the alpha male and alpha female lead the pack, and are the only two individuals that mate.

Apex Predators

Wolves are apex predators that -- thanks to their pack hunting tactics -- can take down any animal native to North America. However, wolves occasionally supplement their diet with small animals that they catch on their own. Important prey species for wolves include white-tailed deer (Odocoileus virginianus), moose (Alces alces), elk (Cervus elaphaus) and bison (Bison bison).

Prevalence of Attacks

It is difficult to verify many reported cases of wolf attacks, and many reports are exaggerated or fabrications -- no central database catalogs wolf attacks. However, in 2002, 18 scientists from the Norwegian Institute for Nature Research analyzed an enormous amount of data regarding wolf attacks worldwide. The researchers found that most wolf attacks were the initiated by rabid wolves, and as the prevalence of rabies has dropped, the incidence of wolf attacks has gone down markedly. The other two types of encounters were predatory attacks and attacks in which humans provoked the wolves. In “A Case History of Wolf-Human Encounters in Alaska and Canada,” author Mark E. McNay analyzed 80 encounters reported between 1942 and 2002. McNay found that nonrabid, unprovoked wolves accounted for less than one-third of the encounters between wolves and humans. Though some people -- mostly small children -- have been injured during predatory attacks, there are no reliable accounts of human deaths resulting from predatory attacks in North America, during the 20th century.

Avoiding Problems

The best way to reduce the likelihood of wolf-induced injury is to avoid encountering one. In general, wolves avoid humans -- particularly large groups of humans -- so always travel with companions when walking in wolf territory. Make plenty of noise when walking through the forest to alert wolves to your presence and give them plenty of time to move off. Keep pets close, as wolves sometimes react aggressively to dogs and other animals. Never feed wolves or leave food out at night when camping in their territory.

Surviving a Wolf Attack

If you encounter a wolf, do not turn your back on it and do not run. Instead, stand your ground and try to look big and intimidating. Open your jacket, raise a backpack over your head, or wave sticks, while yelling and slowly backing away. Do not look the wolf directly in the eye, or show your teeth to the animal -- wolves may interpret either action as a threat. Wolves cannot climb trees, so ascending a tree is a good last resort, though the wolf may simply wait for you to come down.