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Winter wolf attack left scientists debunking pop culture and pack of lies

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Winnipeg wildlife biologist Vince Crichton dismisses Farly Mowat's book, Never Cry Wolf, as 'outright preposterous.'

JOE BRYKSA / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS Enlarge Image

Winnipeg wildlife biologist Vince Crichton dismisses Farly Mowat's book, Never Cry Wolf, as 'outright preposterous.' Photo Store

Farley Mowat's classic Never Cry Wolf isn't bedtime reading for Canada's wolf experts. Some even call the book a brilliant literary prank by a talented Canadian humorist.

But as wolf numbers declined through the decades, the popular perception mirrored Mowat's benevolent fiction. Today, as packs come back, we're not so sanguine.

This winter, when Dawn Hepp garnered international attention for a wolf attack on a lonely stretch of Highway 6 in northern Manitoba, wildlife biologists with a realistic view of our place and theirs in North America paid attention.

An unprovoked attack made no sense scientifically, even if wolves are dangerous, wild animals.

So, they fielded queries about the encounter and shared published and unpublished research and anecdotes about wolf behaviour.

"Her decision NOT to struggle almost certainly saved her life," noted Valerius Geist, professor emeritus of environmental science at the University of Calgary, suggesting the incident was more exploratory than predatory.

"By holding still, Dawn Hepp mimicked a dominant wolf, causing the wolf to pause and let go. Had she struggled, she would have been bitten severely. The behaviour of the wolf before and after the attack also fit with a wolf exploring a prey."

Not quite, say others, such as Winnipeg wildlife biologist Vince Crichton. There was a puncture wound. The attack was real.

In popular imagination, wolves long ago stopped being the fearsome cunning beasts depicted in fairy tales such as Little Red Riding Hood, with the exception of Photoshopped wolves depicted as man-eaters in dark corners of the Internet.

By and large, wolves were seen as harmless wild dogs in the second half of the 20th century. There hadn't been a single documented case of a wolf killing a human in Canada that century, nor would there be until 2005.

When Farley Mowat's Never Cry Wolf was published in 1963 with its depiction of wolves as mouse-munching canines avoiding caribou hunts for easy pickings, it had a ready-made audience -- except for scientists.

"Outright preposterous," Crichton sniffed when asked about the book, which he called a "literary prank."

Still Mowat's conclusion persisted.

"We have doomed the wolf not for what it is, but for what we deliberately and mistakenly perceive it to be -- the mythological epitome of a savage, ruthless killer -- which is, in reality, no more than the reflected image of ourself," Mowat concluded in his classic.

By the time Canada began shipping wolves south to Yellowstone National Park in the 1990s, the transformation was complete.

With little or no field experience -- it's hard to cry wolf when the wolves are decimated or dead -- it's understandable even scientists would come to dismiss those old horror stories.

They had no evidence wolves picked off children, nothing to suggest wolves prowled villages as do polar bears in Churchill.

Today, there are an estimated 70,000 wolves in Canada and Alaska, mostly grey wolves, which fall under the scientific name Canis lupus.

Wary of humans, their hunting prowess is very much intact and their numbers are holding their own or increasing, depending on the abundance of their prey.

With the resurgence of wolves in the wild, scientists, aboriginal cultures and a growing number of conservation and environmentally minded people realize the wolf is neither demon nor friend.

"The wolf is an essential part of the biodiversity and legacy passed on by our forefathers," Crichton said.

Study its behaviour, read the animal's body language and understand how wolves act and how to act in response, scientists urge.

"An easy to read book written by the late Durward Allen, called The Wolves of Minong -- Their Vital Role in a Wild Community is a must," Crichton said.

Wolves hunt in packs, gather at rendezvous sites, stalk, explore, taunt prey and hunt them down. Young bloods challenge alpha males for dominance. Some pairs hook up; others mate for life.

If that sounds like humans, we nevertheless need to take warning and not draw parallels too closely, scientists say.

We've heard about lone wolves, others that are kicked out of their packs. They're the ones we wax romantic about -- such as Romeo, a goofy adolescent black wolf in Juneau, Alaska. Lonely Romeo flirted with female dogs and charmed dog owners -- the perfect play date in the dog park -- until hunters shot him in 2010.

There are rare attacks on pets and even more rare attacks on humans, which is why some in the scientific community were so puzzled by the Hepp story.

"The politically correct view about wolves, currently vehemently and dogmatically defended, is that wolves are harmless, of no danger to humans," Geist noted in a 2007 study on the danger posed by wolves.

He and other scientists say that couldn't be more wrong.

One story Geist tells is about a lawyer friend who should have known better but found himself repelling a wolf attack.

"This lawyer was out on the trapline. He happened to be unarmed at that moment. I asked what he had done. He said having had plenty of experience with sled dogs, including controlling aggressive ones, he handled the wolf as he had handled attacking dogs -- with a severe counterattack. It worked.

"He next asked his bush-experienced native mother how come the wolf attacked. He had read Farley Mowat, and had been taken in! His mother told him that such attacks were not uncommon. He stated that he felt deeply ashamed, having fallen for Mowat's book."

Geist thinks Little Red Riding Hood, the fairy tale of a little girl who discovers a big, bad wolf dressed up in her granny's nightie, has a better bead on wolf behaviour than Never Cry Wolf.

"It's not a case of ignorant superstition. It served as a very valid warning for parents and children not to enter forests containing wolves," he concluded in his 2007 review of wolf behaviour.

That's going too far, other biologists contend. "If we follow Geist's thesis, we shouldn't go to Riding Mountain National Park or anywhere else where there are wolves. Give me a break. Go to the bush but use your common sense,'' Crichton said.

In Manitoba, where 4,000 wolves roam, locals east of Lake Winnipeg listen to packs howl in the distance.

Some tell stories of hybrid wolves that disappear without a trace. The dogs aren't answering a romantic call of the wild. Those handsome male guard dogs are being lured away by female wolves, ambushed and killed by their mates.

There are stories, too, of locals in some communities east of Lake Winnipeg who take pups from wolves dens and raise them as pets.

"What a tragedy. The wolf is the villain, if and when an attack occurs, not the brainless human who removed it from its rightful place," Crichton said.

In the end, Kevin Costner may have danced with wolves in the highly entertaining movie of the same name but that doesn't mean we should.

alexandra.paul@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition April 27, 2013 J4

History

Updated on Friday, May 24, 2013 at 11:39 AM CDT: replaces photo, adds fact box

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