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Wildlife experts doubt account of wolf attack

Manitoba Conservation probing woman's story

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The bizarre account of a wolf attack on a Manitoba highway has experts scratching their heads as they piece together how the victim got away.

Wolf experts are skeptical of the woman's account as it was broadcast on television and published prominently in the National Post newspaper on Wednesday.

"Despite the obvious scratch marks on her neck, I am very dubious about the details of the attack. Something happened, but the story appears to be contrived," said Paul Paquet, an adjunct professor of biology and associate professor of environmental design at the University of Calgary. He co-edited the book Wolves of the World: Perspectives of Behavior, Ecology and Conservation, a best-seller viewed as an essential source of information on wolves.

Dawn Hepp told news media this week a wolf attacked her when she stopped to help another motorist by the side of Highway 6 on March 8.

It was near a lonely stretch of road close to Grand Rapids, 400 kilometres north of Winnipeg, and she spotted a timber wolf in the distance but didn't think anything of it and walked to the other car, she said.

"As I turned my back, all of a sudden this wolf jumped me and all I could feel was fur on my face and jaws around my neck...," Hepp told the National Post. She kept surprisingly calm, as experts advise during such an attack.

"He dug deeper with his teeth. I had my coat on, and so when he went to get a better grip, he let go and then I gave him a look," Hepp said.

She said the wolf, which was 6-2 and 200 pounds, dropped to the ground but didn't go away.

The animal trailed her back to her truck, she said. "He was on my heels, almost smiling at me. He looked like he wanted to come for a ride."

She managed to get into her truck and take off, but not before stopping to tell the motorist she had to leave.

Then she drove three hours south to the hospital in Ashern.

Hepp said the wolf was so close she was eye to eye with it. It had green eyes, she recalled.

She could not be reached for comment Wednesday night for her reaction to the wolf experts who doubt her details of the attack.

In Manitoba, wildlife biologists estimate there are 4,000 wolves, but this would be the first attack on a human in recent memory.

Manitoba Conservation is investigating Hepp's account and is asking experts outside the province what they make of it.

"As a matter of fact, in the 25-plus years of my career, this is the first encounter where a person has been attacked,'' said Ken Rebizant, the big-game manager in the wildlife branch of Manitoba Conservation and Water Stewardship. "For the most part, wolves avoid people. When you see a wolf, they normally run away from you."

Wolves tend to run in packs, but there have been cases of attacks by lone wolves.

Sick, weak, injured or protecting a kill could trigger an attack, but in the past 25 years, there have been just five such accounts from Algonquin Park in Ontario, one in Alaska and one on Vancouver Island. The last two involved wolf bites, but none of the attacks killed anybody.

Manitoba Conservation hopes the motorist who witnessed the attack on Hepp will call the wildlife branch.

As for the colour of a wolf's eyes, it's usually yellowish-brown or greyish, the experts say.

"The story is most interesting," said one expert, who would only speak anonymously. "She also said on TV it followed her to her vehicle -- how did she get it off her throat? That is what she did not say. Very strange, for sure. What is also of interest: She says it was 6 foot 2 inches. Wonder how she had time to measure?"

Added a second expert, "I believe the woman, but where was the statement from the witness whose car she stopped to help? Why didn't the wolf tear the woman's throat out? The wounds are real, but very superficial and small for a wolf."

alexandra.paul@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition March 21, 2013 A6

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