Wolf History, Conservation, Ecology and Behavior
Wolfology Item # 1322
Acta Zoologica Lituanica
v.13, n.1 (2003)

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Is the Fear of Wolves Justified? A Fenniscandian Perspective
John D.C. Linnell, Erling J. Solberg, Scott Brainerd, Olof Liberg, Hakan Sand, Petter Wabakken, Ilpo Kojola
Editor's Comment
Some wolf advocates tend to scoff at those who express concern for their own -- and their children's -- safety where wolves are concerned. This study reveals that there is at least some basis in fact for that fear. The authors rightly point out that while the fear of wolves is "out of proportion" to the actual risk, it should be taken seriously. For a related essay, see "Wolf-Human Interactions in Alaska and Canada" in Resources: Wolf Ecology & Behavior -- JM

Following the recolonisation of southern Scandinavia by wolves, the public has expressed high levels of fear of wolves. In response, we have reviewed the existing data on wolf attacks on humans from Fennoscandia during the last 300 years. We were able to find records of people being killed by wolves from all three countries: one from Norway, 16 from Sweden, and 77 from Finland. All cases were prior to 1882. The vast majority of victims were children under the age of 12. All the attacks were predatory in nature, as opposed to those done by rabid wolves. The incidents tended to cluster in space and time indicating that only certain wolves developed the habit of killing people. Implications for the present day management are discussed.
After centuries of intense persecution, wolves (Canis lupus) were regarded as being functionally extinct in Scandinavia by the 1960s. However, following suspected immigration from the Finnish-Russian population in the 1970s, the population has grown in south-central Scandinavia and now more than 100 wolves are found in Norway and Sweden. After this recovery of wolves, the recovery of wolverines (Gulo gulo), brown bears (Ursus arctos) and Eurasian lynx (Lynx lynx) followed during the 1980s and 1990s. As with these other three species, there have been a large number of conflicts associated with depredation on livestock. However, in contrast to the other three large carnivores, there has been intense media focus on the fact that people are afraid of wolves.
The media has presented many interviews of people that are frightened to walk in the forest and no longer allow their children to walk to school. This focus on fear has prompted a series of intra-disciplinary studies on the human-dimension of fear and a review of cases of wolf attacks on people from the region.The aim of these studies has been to survey the extent of fear of wolves among the public and determine if this fear is in fact grounded in any real risk. While the fact that some large carnivores like bears, tigers (Panthera tigris), leopards (P. pardus), African and Asiatic lions (P. leo) and mountain lions (Puma concolor) attack and kill people is undisputed, the danger posed by wolves is often hotly debated among scientists and environmentalists.
Human attitudes towards large carnivores are complex in Norway, and depend on many factors such as age, sex, education, occupation, hobbies, etc. While there is a clear majority of people in Norway that appear to favour the idea that wolves should be allowed to exist in Norway, many people indicate that they are afraid of wolves. A telephone survey of 1,200 people living in south-eastern Norway, in an area recolonised by wolves (albeit at very low density), indicated that 48% would have at least some concern for the safety of themselves or their families, 61% would change their behaviour if wolves occurred, and 54% expressed at least some fear of wolves. A total of 3,319 people responded to a mailed questionnaire survey. A total of 48% of respondents indicated that they were 'very much afraid' of wolves and an additional 40% reported that they were 'slightly afraid' of wolves....[I]s this fear justified?
In order to address the issue of whether wolves actually pose a risk to human safety we have attempted to uncover documented cases of wolf attacks on people from Fennoscandia during the last 300 years....[W]e have attempted to compile published accounts of wolf attacks from the literature (ecological, historical, medical) that have been identified by other authors....Therefore, this must be regarded as a review of those cases that have been found, rather than as a total summary of all cases....From the information available and the fact that rabies has been virtually absent from Fennoscandia it is apparent that none of these cases were due to rabid wolves. Therefore, they represent predatory attacks where humans were regarded as prey.
Norway. The oral tradition in Norway contains many stories of people being attacked and killed by wolves. One of the most widespread and famous stories concerning a soldier being killed by wolves was regarded as true by early zoologists. However, the fact that there is no documentation of the event and that almost identical events are reported from several regions of Fennoscandia renders the tale's authenticity doubtful. Another common myth concerns a family tossing a baby to the wolves that were pursuing their horse-drawn sleigh. In fact the image of the soldier or postman, and the family on the sleigh being attacked by wolves are very common devices used in wolf-tales from throughout Europe.
There is only one case that has contemporary documentation. This concerns a 6-8-year-old girl who was killed in Sorum, Akershus County (southern Norway) on 28 December 1800. Records exist from local and national newspapers and from the parish register.
Sweden. As [with] Norway, there are many folk tales of wolves killing people in Sweden, but only [a] few have any form of documentation. A historian has [researched]...a number of these in central Sweden and found support in the parish registers for four cases of people killed by wolves. These cases were:
Case 1. Boda parish, Varmland County, 17 December 1727, a 4-5-year-old boy, Jon Svennson -- 'mauled by a wolf and mostly consumed'.
Case 2. Boda parish, Varmland County, 6 January 1728, a 9-year-old boy, Jon Ersson -- 'mauled by a wolf'.
Case 3. Steneby parish, Dalsland County, 3 August 1731, a 12-year-old girl, Borta Johansdotter, was killed by a wolf.
Case 4. Hova parish, Vastergotland County, January 1763, an 8-year-old boy, Nils Nilsson -- 'bitten to death by a wolf'.
[Based] on the proximity in space and time, it is likely that cases 1 and 2 belong to one and the same wolf.
Another incident in which several children were reported as being killed by a wolf near Gysinge in Gastrickland in central Sweden is widely known. A historian has examined contemporary newspapers, parish records, private journals/letters and administrative records to construct a full picture of the episode. In a series of attacks between 30 December 1820 and 27 March 1821, a total of 31 people were attacked, resulting in 12 deaths and 15 injuries. With the exception of a 19-year-old woman, all the fatal attacks were on children between 3.5 and 15 years of age. All the attacks occurred within a very localised area on the border between Dalarna and Gastrickland, and they stopped when a wolf was shot. [Based] on historical accounts, Pousette (2000) indicates that all the attacks were performed by a single wolf that had been captured as a pup and raised in captivity for 3-4 years prior to the attacks.
Finland. A larger number of wolf attacks on people is known from...19th century Finland (which included parts of present day Russian Karelia)....According to their location and time, these attacks can be grouped into five episodes.
Episode 1. Kaukola (present day Russian Karelia). From January 1831 to summer 1832 a total of eight children and one adult woman was killed by what was assumed to be a single wolf.
Episode 2. Kemio (southwest Finland). In 1836, three children were killed by wolves.
Episode 3. Kivennapa (present day Russian Karelia). Between 1839 and 1850 a total of 20 children and one adult was killed by what was assumed to be the same wolf or wolf pack....
Episode 4. Tammerfors (southwest Finland). In 1877, 10 children were attacked by wolves; nine of these died from their wounds.
Episode 5. Abo (southwest Finland). During the period 1879-1882, a pair of wolves killed a large number of children within a limited area covering 11 parishes. Early accounts indicated that 22 children were killed, however further examination of records has indicated that as many as 35 may have been killed....As the attacks progressed, an increasing effort was expended in trying to kill the wolves, involving hunters from Russia and Lithuania and the Finnish army. Finally in January 1882 a female wolf was shot and 12 days later a male wolf was poisoned, bringing the attacks to an end.
In addition, there are newspaper reports on three other attacks (two fatal...). A 12-year-old girl was killed in Eurajoki, south-western Finland in 1859, an 8-year-old boy was killed in Uusikrikko, Karelia in 1880, and a boy was attacked in Sortavala, Karelia in 1882. The accuracy of these reports is unknown.
Although there is no direct evidence that these wolves were tame (as in the case of the Gysinge wolf from Sweden), Pousette (2000) indicates that the possibility cannot be ruled out. Apparently during this period the bounty paid for wolf pups during summer was only half that of the bounty paid during winter. Accordingly, many hunters would capture wolf pups in summer at den-sites and keep them caged until mid-winter. At this time they got the full bounty and a valuable fur. In this type of situation it is quite possible that a wolf could have escaped, after having lost its fear of people.
Until the recent documentation of predatory attacks by wolves on children in India (Jhala & Sharma 1997; Rajpurohit 1999) the scientific community has often doubted that non-rabid wolves pose any threat to human safety. The results presented here, and those from other studies based on searches of historical archives...indicate that wolf predation on humans was an occasional, but widespread, feature of life in Europe until the 20th century. As many of the historical accounts describe finding the bodies in a fully or semi-consumed state, there is little doubt that these attacks reflected, at least partly, predatory behaviour on the part of the wolves.
A number of common patterns emerge from these Fennoscandian cases. Firstly, victims were almost entirely children under the age of 12 indicating that wolves were avoiding adults. In 85% of cases no adult was present, and the children were generally alone. It should be remembered that during this period children were commonly employed as farm-workers and shepherds, which routinely brought them into wolf habitats and into contact with wolves. Secondly, there was no clear seasonal pattern of predation. Thirdly, the attacks tended to be clustered in space and time. This indicates that human-killing was not a normal behaviour for the average wolf, but was rather a specialised behaviour that single wolves or packs developed and maintained until they were killed. Finally, in all cases only a single victim was injured in each attack, although the victim was with 2-3 other people in a few cases. This contrasts dramatically with the pattern seen in attacks by rabid wolves, where up to 40 people could be bitten in the same attack.
Finally, all these attacks from the 18th and 19th century Fennoscandia, like those from...20th century India, stem from situations where poverty is widespread in the human population and wild prey are rare. This situation is likely to make wolves dependent on livestock or garbage that will bring them into close contact with people on a regular basis. This contact is likely to reduce the level of fear that wolves have for humans....Given the present situation of Fennoscandia, where prey are abundant, fearless wolves are likely to be rapidly shot, and the socio-economic situation has changed dramatically, it is very unlikely that wolf attacks on humans will occur.
....Large carnivore depredation on people has been a feature of human existence throughout our evolutionary past and recent history. It is therefore not surprising that people maintain an instinctive fear of large carnivores including wolves....However, the levels of fear of wolves expressed by the modern Norwegian public seem to be out of proportion to the actual risk posed by wolves.Results from a survey of European human-dimension studies indicate that fear levels should decrease as people become used to the presence of wolves. However, this does not imply that fear should be ignored in present conservation/management programs. Prior to this review there was a general feeling among the public that scientists/conservationists would not admit that wolves had ever killed people. This...decreases trust and hinders effective communication between...actors in the wolf debate....
Based on reviews of the ecology and human dimensions of the fear of wolves Linnell and Bjerke (2002) recommend a set of measures that should help minimise fear. These included (1) keeping wolves wild through regulated harvest; (2) maintaining dialogue between rural residents and managers; (3) maintaining a healthy prey-base; (4) developing clear reaction plans in case of an aggressive wolf encounter; (5) allowing time for people to redevelop personal experience with wolves....[T]his review of historical events has indicated that it is vital to take the beliefs and fears of people seriously when developing conservation information strategies.
Figure 1: Map of Fennoscandia showing locations mentioned in the text.
Figure 2: Age structure of humans killed by wolves in Fennoscandia, 1700-1900....
Figure 3: Seasonal distribution of humans attacked by wolves in Fennoscandia, 1700-1900.
Table 1: Locations and circumstances, group sizes and presence of adults for wolf attacks on humans in Fennoscandia in the 19th century.
References: 47