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Wolves
Wolf History, Conservation, Ecology and Behavior
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Wolfology Item # 562
Source
An abbreviated version appeared in Natural History (April 1971)
The Beast of Gevaudan
C.H.D. Clarke
1971
Abstract
The horrible deaths of almost 100 people in the French province of Languedoc were once considered indisputable proof of the savage and villainous nature of the wolf. The author reviews the evidence and draws his own conclusion regarding the true identity of the Beast.
It may be timely...to recall the "Beast" of Gevaudan....the case against the wolf as a slayer of men (and maids) must be reviewed, and this has been done at last by Jacques Delperrie de Bayac in his fully researched and documented book about the most famous wolves in history, Du sang dans la montagne....
The truth is grim -- possibly one hundred dead people, mostly children -- but there is an overwhelming scientific interest and, in my view, there may be some redeeming features, from the wolf point of view....
In my home province of Ontario, Canada, you can hear its howl within 150 miles of Toronto, while the nearest specimens may be found much closer....We are often asked if they ever eat men and we can answer truthfully that no man was ever injured by a wolf here. The late Jim Curran of Sault Ste Marie, Ontario, had a standing reward for anyone who had been bitten by a wolf in Ontario, and it was never claimed. His final verdict was, "Any man who says he's been et by a wolf is a liar!"
So far as Ontario is concerned, that is the whole story, but we cannot dismiss the subject so quickly. We all have been exposed to European folklore. What about the Russian nobleman and his wife in their troika, discarding first the fur coats, then the faithful old family retainer, and finally, either the baron or the lady -- depending on the story -- to stay the ravenous pack pursuing them?....Much more to the point are the nineteen Russians from Smolensk who had been bitten by one wolf and were sent to Pasteur for his treatment when it was first developed.
....In southern and central Europe things are different. As evidence we have an excellent history of the wolf by Colin Matheson (1944)....The herds of man, as well as the denizens of the forest, paid toll to the flesh-eater, and the lines were drawn between him and the herdsman to whom animals and wealth were one. The despoiler became the arch enemy....Primitive hunters, who have seen wolves in all sorts of activities, from play to hunting, from the gentle solicitude of the bitch with pups to the unflinching snarl with which death is met, hold them in high esteem and often claim clan-kinship with them....Not the least impressive thing about the...primitive [hunter] is that he is not afraid of the wolf. This fits in with the report that, in spite of legend, the wolf in the northland did not molest men.
Against that we can set the traditional "wolf bogey" of southern Europe. Matheson's record and Delperrie de Bayac's detailed study show that it was, on the face of things, warranted. The last person shown to have been killed by wolves in France was a woman in Haute-Vienne, in 1918....Before, there was a girl at Cara in 1914. Before that there were others and still others, in France, Spain, Germany, Poland, and Russia. In 1875, 161 persons were killed by wolves in Russia. In 1814 there were 19 in the Posen area, and so on and on, to a total that unquestionably, in the course of centuries, ran into thousands, including, we are told, one king of France, Louis d'Outremer, the son of Charles the Simple.
What is it all about? And why the difference between northern Europe and southern Europe? Fortunately, we are able to draw conclusions based on many pieces of evidence, and we soon arrive at a simple explanation, which is that reached by Delperrie de Bayac....The wolves of southern Europe were no bigger or more formidable than others -- if anything, they were on the small side -- no more fierce, or bold, or less fearful of man. The only difference was that they were frequently rabid....This is borne out by the assertion of Slubczakowski (1968) who wrote out of long experience in Rumania, where more than 5,000 wolves were taken in a year in the mid-fifites, after a war-time build-up in their numbers. He says flatly that only rabid wolves attack people.
The best clue to this is in the numerous descriptions of actual attacks in Matheson and Delperrie de Bayac. One wolf in Puy-de-Dome bit twenty-eight, of whom twelve died. One in Indre in 1878 bit seven, of whom three died....Of Pasteur's nineteen Russians bitten by one wolf, his rabies treatment saved sixteen; the others had been so badly torn that they died anyway....Down the long list of recorded attacks by wolves it becomes clear that the Russian baron in his troika is folklore, but the rabid wolf was grim fact. The pattern is universal. The famous wolves of medieval song and story were all rabid. A reading of the "lays" or epic poetry describing them is enough for anyone to see for himself -- the Beast of Camarthen, the Beast of Orleans, the Beast of Ardennes, and so on....
One of the best evidences is to be found in the old bounty lists of France...that gave a higher premium for "wolves rabid or having attacked man." The two things were synonymous.
It should be added that there exists in Europe a tradition of wolves eating the flesh of people who were helpless or already dead. The Greek wrestler Milo of Croton...died so in the forest near Croton. Seeing a cleft tree, he tried to push the two halves apart by main strength and was caught in a vise of his own making. When he was found the wolves had devoured him. In years of famine and pestilence, war and desolation, tradition has it that wolves attacked the dying as well as the dead....One of the last to capitalize on it was Toronto's Ernest Thompson Seton, who, while an art student in France, painted a picture called Awaited in Vain, showing a French peasant pulled down and eaten by wolves in sight of his own cottage. It was received with scorn in most quarters, and his fellow Canadian Dr. William Brodie drew attention to the neatness with which the wolves had piled the defunct's clothing.
....In northern Europe and North America there is no such history. We should be able to say that rabies on this continent was brought in by civilization. However, there has been a history of fox-dog-wolf epizootics in the Arctic going back as far as records go. Their etiology was not known and the whole story is still far from known, but there are several interesting facts....[T]here is no parallel in North America to the European death toll from rabid wolves. Rabid foxes and skunks have caused deaths, including a governor of Lower Canada, but not wolves.
....You will notice that the great wolves of history were known as Beasts (Matheson 1944, Coudray-Maunier 1859, Lecocq 1869, Buffet 1587). We are sooner or later led to the one Beast that confounds all our theories and possibly also destroys our complacency. The Beast of Gevaudan does not fit into the pattern....
What actually happened is that from July, 1764, to June, 1767, wolves terrorized the regions of Gevaudan and Vivarais in France around the mountain massif of the Margeride, killing and, for the most part, eating many persons, before being finally hunted down at a cost of 29,000 livres to the state and nearly four years of serious disruption to the life of a province....
Most English-speaking persons got their impressions from Robert Louis Stevenson's Travels with a Donkey in the Cevennes. He traveled through the heart of the wolf country and his story of the Beast was evidently influenced by a novel, La bete du Gevaudan, by Elie Berthet, which along with a more recent novel of the same name (Morreau-Bellecroix 1945) has also given most Frenchmen their ideas....
Startling news [-- the first victim of the Beast, a fourteen-year old girl, Jeanne Boulet, of the hamlet of Ubas...was killed...on July 8 --] was spread around the Margeride in July 1764....Before the shock had worn off, on August 8, another girl, fifteen years old, was killed at Masmejean....People began to be frightened when, late in August, a boy of fifteen was killed in the same manner at Chayla-l'Eveque....It became known that the killer was either a wolf or wolflike. Shortly after, another boy was killed in the same parish. Then on September 6, a woman of thirty-six was killed at Estrets...and on the 16th at 6:00 PM a boy at Choisinets....
Genuine alarm was felt and a complaint was made....M. Duhamel, captain-aide major of the volunteers at Clermont, a captain of the Regiment de Soubise...was sent by the governor of Languedoc. He billeted forty dragoons in Langogne and organized hunts.
That the captain was an experienced wolf hunter is apparent from the fact that he started to get wolves -- the first, a big one, killed on September 21 in the parish of Luc. The dreadful toll continued, however: a twenty-year-old girl at Apchier...on October 7, followed by an attack at Pouget...on a fifteen-year-old youth...then two more girls devoured at Contrandes and Grazeires.
....It became apparent that these were not rabid wolves. The devouring of victims had indicated this all along, although a rabid wolf may, at times, eat part of a person who has been killed directly by its bites. The certainty that no rabies was involved means that there was something going on that was without precedent.
M. Duhamel did his best to follow up every attack, but without success. As the toll of death and injury mounted, official concern increased. Finally, by order of the Bishop of Mende, the Blessed Sacrament was exposed in all the churches of the diocese on January 6, 1765, and special prayers for relief were offered. On the very day of prayer two people were killed in widely separated places. This in itself was interesting because it gave the first good evidence of what later became known, that the Beast was really more than one animal. But by that time the term Beast was too firmly established ever to be uprooted.
Six days later the most famous incident of the whole terror occurred. Seven children of Vileret d'Apcher, five boys and two girls, guarding their herds together, were attacked....The three oldest boys, twelve-year-olds armed with homemade pikes, stood their ground, led by a boy named Portefaix. The wolf broke through their guard and seized the smallest boy by the cheek. The three big boys made him let go at once, but he renewed the attack and knocked down the other small boy. Driven off again, he came back once more, seized the little fellow by the arm, and dragged him away. All the other children attacked him, but he would not let go and was getting away with his victim until Portefaix and a boy named Couston forced him into a mudhole where they all rained blows on his head, compelling him to let go. He attacked his attackers and left his tooth marks in Portefaix's homemade pike, but they confronted him so resolutely that he took flight.
....[Abbe] Fabre records eight deaths in January, three in February, five in March, seven in April, five in May, one in June, two in July, and two in September. A number were attacked and escaped. They were mostly adults. Only one adult man was ever killed -- in April 1765. He was probably too terrified to fight....
Duhamel and his troop tried every device they could think of. They got wolves, but not the wolves. They beat the woods and sat up over bodies. A special bounty of 6,000 livre was set by the crown....On February 7 a hunt was staged by men of seventy-three parishes, 20,000 in all. Everyone thought it would work; even in Paris news was anxiously awaited. There was snow and they had the track of the Beast. At 1:00 PM it was shot and wounded, but it got away....
In France the "wolfer" (louvetier) was a royal officer. The Grand Louvetier was an officer of the royal household and the title was held by a series of distinguished gentlemen....When the Beast was at large the Grand Louvetier was the Chevalier de Flamarens. Each such official in the various provinces had under him, as the occasion arose, lieutenants de louveterie....
M. Denneval, having come all the way from Normandy, must have been reckoned one of the best of the lieutenants. He was likewise sincerely moved by the killings of women and children, which continued at a rate of four or five a month. During the course of his hunts the Beast was identified and seen to have a mate.
M. Denneval tried poisoning bodies, without getting the Beast. He also kept the men of the countryside busy in a continual series of hunts, so that normal life was impossible and the farms and villages buzzed with criticism. The disruption caused by the wolves was, in fact, threefold. Hunting occupied time that should have gone to farming, and the crops of the conscript hunters suffered. The children and their herds had to be grouped to give safety in numbers, making for cumbersome and inefficient grazing. There was an almost complete cessation of travel at night. All this was, of course, in addition to the loss of life.
On May 1 one of the Beasts got a bullet....There were more incidents that indicated at least two Beasts, although they were not so interpreted until later. More hits were scored by hunters. On May 18 one wolf was severely wounded, yet on the 19th a maiden lady of fifty was killed, and that particular Beast...in true wolf fashion, returned later to its kill. On May 24 one wolf got a deep bayonet wound in the flank....Any one of the encounters reported above could, with a little luck, have been kills, but unpopular measures and failure do not go together, and in June, M. Denneval and his son were recalled.
This time the king sent an officer of the royal guard and member of his household, M. Antoine de Beauterne, porte-arquebuse du roi, together with his son and an outfit similar to that of the departed Denneval, but much better....
One of his hunts was related to an incident which may have provided the stimulus for the "beautiful shepherdess" stories repeated by Robert Louis Stevenson and presumably featured by the Berthet novel....A girl of the village of La Vachellerie...disappeared suddenly at about seven or eight o' clock in the evening on September 8. A shepherd found her coif, and M. Antoine was sent for, being reached at one in the morning. He arrived in three hours with four gamekeepers, limiers, or leashed trailing dogs, and a number of hangers-on. The valets de limiers ("dog handlers") and gamekeepers took the trail and after finding successive items of torn and bloodstained clothing, came on the naked body, the throat pierced by fangs, which had caused the great effusion of blood, and one thigh eaten to the bone....
On September 21 M. Antoine went with his company to the dense thickets belonging to the nuns of the Royal Abbey of Chazes. His dog handlers had driven several wolves there, including a very large one....When the dogs were put in, he himself took the most likely looking runway. He had not been there long when he got a broadside-on shot at a big wolf at forty steps distance. The charge he had loaded bowled him over backward, but the wolf was hard hit. Before he could reload, it came for him, possibly in confusion, and Rinchard, a gamekeeper from the estates of the Duc d'Orleans, who was nearest, came in and shot it as it stood ten steps from M. Antoine. It ran again, twenty-five steps into the open, then fell dead.
....After that it was examined by a local surgeon, one Boulanger...and there were brought four girls and three boys who had been involved in four different attacks, and who solemnly identified their attacker. The surgeon had very little to say. He thought the bones in the stomach were sheep ribs.
....[T]he big wolf was taken to Clermont-Ferrand. There it was examined by M. Jaladon, one of the senior surgeons of France, who made a deposition in detail, which...describes in a professionally competent manner an amazing variety of wounds inflicted at various times, as well as at its death....M. Jaladon remarked that the wolf was huge. In fact it weighed 130 pounds while fresh, was 32 inches high, and 5 feet 7.5 inches long....Such a wolf would be called big in North America, and for Europe it was huge.
In spite of the acknowledged imperfections of M. Jaladon's embalming, which started a little too late, M. Antoine's son rushed the body to Paris, where it was seen by the queen and then by the whole court....Then M. Antoine left for Paris, a Cross of St. Louis, and a 1,000 livres pension. He and his son made a tidy sum exhibiting the big wolf as long as its remains could be held together, and its skin, despite putrefaction, was mounted. With that, his pension, and his various awards, his fortune was made -- a real killing.
....[S]o far as French officialdom was concerned, the Beast...[was] dead.
Then, on December 2, two children were attacked at Bessyre-Sainte-Mary. In following weeks there were more attacks and a kill, and in February of 1766 a footprint larger than that of the dead Beast was measured. In spring the dreadful register of burials of child victims started again, and so did the hunts, this time without official help. The number of victims was smaller but the terror revived. As the new year wore on the second wolf, for such it can only have been, grew bolder. He had averaged only one a month, but in April he took six and in May five....
If the crown took no notice, the States-General of Languedoc had to, because they were near at hand. They posted bounties and the local gentry started hunts....Poison was tried again on a large scale, without result. With poison the wolf is the last to be exterminated, being preceded by a host of lesser fur-bearers. Before the end of the year three more victims were dead....
The end came in the Saugues area of Gevaudan on June 19, 1767, in a hunt directed by the local lord, the Marquis d'Apchier....A married peasant from the chief village of the parish of Bessrye-Sainte-Mary, Jean Chastel (la Masque)...was on watch while the marquis hunted his hounds. A great wolf was put out to him and fell to his shot....
D'Apchier...had the wolf measured, examined, and embalmed by the same surgeon, Boulanger...who had examined the first wolf. This poor man merely replaced the entrails with straw. By the time it got to Paris it was much too high for the royal nostrils, so the great naturalist Buffon was delegated to examine it, after which it was buried. Buffon merely stated that it was an enormous wolf. It was described as reddish, with a very large head and a long muzzle.
We owe to the unhappy Boulanger and his witnesses the fact that the identity as a man-eater was established -- the stomach contained portions of a young girl, its most recent victim. A contemporary, the Abbe Trocellier, tells us that it weighed 109 pounds, smaller than the other. The first wolf was also said to have been long muzzled.
That was it. The Abbe Fabre cites four major histories of the episode, besides Pourcher's book and Berthet's novel. He estimates 120 to 150 persons attacked, and I tally 64 dead from his records, but Delperrie de Bayac concludes that there were at least 80, possibly 100....Matheson, who uses still another source, says that 74 wolves were destroyed in 1764 alone by hunters who were after the Beast....
Thus, after a long terror, huge expense, and dislocation of the life of a province, were killed the wolves that killed men. Wolves they were -- not hellish monsters as some thought. Delperrie de Bayac disposes of other explanations. But were they ordinary wolves? Many said no. The common belief was that they were possessed by demons, which Pourcher evidently believed. The idea is believable if one accepts all the traditional premises of religious groups, and it is not surprising to find it urged. After all, there is no other instance of human death from wolves in which it can be so positively asserted that the wolf did not have rabies. During comparable periods in the same time segment in France, many persons were killed by rabid wolves and by rabid dogs. This was accepted as part of a known pattern, and...there was no terror. The insistence on demoniacal possession is a compliment to the wolves. Normally, the peasant in contact with nature could not have considered the wolf a menace to man. The evidence is a culture featuring twilight herding by unarmed children, in a land where drives, in six months, may have killed 74 wolves, and certainly killed a large number.
....[O]ne is led back relentlessly to the explanation commonly accepted at the time -- that there was something unusual about those wolves. Here I depart from Delperrie de Bayac, who was content to prove simply that they were wolves in the conventional sense. Consider the facts: The two examined were abnormally large and abnormally colored. The shape, too, was wrong in the eyes of men who had seen dozens of wolves killed in the course of this one campaign. They were also, shall we say, abnormal in their hunting habits. Do these facts mean anything?....
Wolves may be black or white, as well as gray, and the mane of a normal gray wolf is darker than the rest. A clear white throat is a dog character. Reddish color is not normal in a timber wolf, although it is found in the so-called red wolf of the southern United States, which comes in two phases, red and black....Some true timber wolves have a rufescent cast, but the description given to the smaller of the two Beasts, like the white collar of the larger, does not ring true. Both do ring true for a wolf-dog hybrid. However, such hybrids are literally unknown to nature....I have traveled extensively in the north and at various times had in my hands the wildlife administration of the Northwest Territories and of the province of Ontario, yet I have never heard of a natural dog-timber wolf cross. It can easily be made in confinement, however....
Often what we do see is a natural dog-coyote hybrid, especially in southern Ontario, where coyotes are scattered and the females may be bred by dogs in the absence of their own kind. The provincial administration has handled hundreds and has also raised wild hybrid litters. The pattern is fairly clear. In a first-generation cross one may get hybrid vigor, that is, the offspring are larger than either parent. This is lost in successive breedings and back-crosses, but the the second generation may also be large. The first-generation hybrid is also wolflike in its general appearance, even though the dog parent may have been piebald and flop eared. The wolf appearance is dominant. Inbreeding of the second generation brings out the latent doggy characters. The hybrids are also blackish or reddish, usually uniformly colored, but occasionally showing white tail tips or other white marks.
So far as I know, hybrid vigor is not general in the dog-wolf hybrids produced in captivity, but the other results
are the same -- usually a dark, wolflike animal....It might well be different if the dog were, say, a Cevanol shepherd. Certainly, if the history of other animals is any guide, some dog-wolf crosses could be expected to produce hybrid vigor. The abnormal coloration of the two Beasts, considered with the fact that they were abnormal in other respects, leads me to believe that they were really unique in the history of their kind -- natural first generation dog-wolf crosses with hybrid vigor. I should add that the natural dog-coyote crosses that we have to contend with are more cunning than dogs or coyotes, not the least bit tame, and far more destructive than the wild parent, with less fear of man. The thing fits. Unfortunately, apparently neither M. Antoine nor M. Buffon saved us a skull. The National Museum at Paris, according to Delperrie de Bayac, destroyed the skin of M. Antoine's wolf at the beginning of this century after it had shed all its hair. Was there a skull? If it is gone, no conclusive judgment can be made....
INCLUDES
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