A common question from visitors at the International Wolf Center in Ely, Minnesota, is, “Aren’t wolves dangerous?” The Center’s answer is “Not usually,” followed by various qualifications. Now the Center has verified the very rare occurrence of wolves attacking children in Israel.
Wolf biologists in contact with the Center’s founder, Dr. L. David Mech, stated that children camping with their families in the Judean Desert have been bitten, most receiving light injuries before the coyote-sized wolves were driven away. Such attacks have been rare in the past, but local biologists surmise that people have been feeding the wolves, and that the animals are growing too comfortable around humans in the area.
Attacks like these are so uncommon that when reports began to surface, Mech reached out to researchers in Israel. Those colleagues confirmed the news of the attacks.
“This is such a rare occurrence that I thought, ‘This needs expert verification,’” Mech said. “I had to get this checked out right away. When they wrote back and confirmed the stories, I was surprised. Once they told me that the wolves might have been fed by visitors to the parks, it all started to make sense. When wolves are fed and become less afraid of people, problems like this can occur.”
The wolf subspecies responsible for the attacks is the Canis lupus arabs, also known as the Arabian wolf. It averages about 40 pounds and typically stands about 26 inches tall at the shoulder.
Before this summer, the last wolf attack reported in the area was in 2008, according to Haim Berger, who did his doctoral research on wolf behavior. Berger was one of the people interviewed by The Guardian, a leading news source.
“I’ve been warning about the risk of this for almost 15 years – the risk of wolves getting gradually more used to humans and trying to convince people that we need to keep a greater distance,” Berger was quoted as saying in The Guardian.
While no recent wolf research has been conducted in the Judean desert, Berger told The Guardian that he believes the spate of attacks probably involves a single individual or individuals from a population of about 20 wolves, that would usually hunt over a far wider area.
The Guardian also interviewed Gilad Gabay, the southern region director of the Israel nature and parks authority. He said “It is a change in behavior that happened because of people. … Every (time a wolf feeds on litter), that has significance. We won’t rest until we stop this, but we need the cooperation of the public.”
Educators at the International Wolf Center teach visitors that wild animals may lose their fear of humans if they associate humans with providing food. Like any large predator, wolves are capable of killing people. No one should encourage a wolf to approach, and hikers and campers should take all necessary precautions to prevent dangerous encounters with wildlife.