Who's Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf? Fears As Predator Returns To Europe
The wolf has returned to Germany and along with it, ages old fears. But these worries are unfounded, argues Italian biologist Luigi Boitani, who has studied the creature's return across Europe.
After earning a degree in biology, Luigi Boitani, 69, had intended to devote himself to the study of the Montecristo goat. But then a colleague asked him for his help on a wolf project. That was more than 40 years ago. Since then, he has never lost his fascination for the predator. Boitani, who teaches at the Sapienza University of Rome, has monitored the return of wolves to many European countries. As chairman of the Large Carnivore Initiative for Europe in the International Union for Conservation of Nature, he advises the European Commission on how to protect the predators and how coexistence with wolves can succeed. He has published more than 300 scientific papers, especially on predators like the wolf, brown bear, lynx and wolverine.
SPIEGEL recently interviewed Boitani about fears in Europe as the wolf returns to its former habitats.
SPIEGEL: Professor Boitani, individual wolves have been spotted roaming through villages in northern Germany in recent weeks, and one was even seen near a daycare center located in a forest. Is this cause for concern?
Boitani: Let me turn your question around: How many people have been eaten by wolves in Europe recently?
SPIEGEL: We are unaware of any ...
Boitani: That's right. And yet for many people the wolf is the quintessential predator. Fear of wolves is part of our culture, as is the fear of snakes, even though only a fraction of snakes are poisonous. In Finland, for example, fear of wolves is also widespread. At a conference on species conservation last year, we asked Finnish attendees where this fear comes from. They said that someone was once killed by wolves in Finland. When we asked them when it happened, they said it was about 400 years ago.
SPIEGEL: Nevertheless, many people are terrified by the notion of suddenly encountering a wolf or even a pack of wolves while walking through the woods. How should you behave if that happens?
Boitani: I have been studying wolves for 40 years. They are a part of my life. I always feel incredibly fortunate to encounter them in nature, as I did in the Abruzzi region a few weeks ago, when I saw two beautiful animals in a clearing. But unfortunately that happens very, very rarely. They are simply incredibly good at staying out of sight. But the most important thing is to enjoy moments like that. Wolves are fascinating animals. And, in principle, the same thing applies to them that we teach our children when they encounter dogs: don't run away! A fleeing creature is prey in the eyes of a wolf.
SPIEGEL: That's hardly reassuring to joggers and dog owners in (the German state of) Lower Saxony, where wolves recently followed a woman walking her two dogs. However, the wolves did not exhibit any aggressive behavior. What should I take into account if I have a dog and live in an area where there are wolves?
Boitani: You should keep your dog on a leash, so that it doesn't enter the wolves' territory.
Boitani: No. Wolves are curious, and it's quite possible that a wolf will occasionally approach a human settlement. It doesn't happen often, but it isn't unnatural behavior, either. A situation like that can certainly become critical, and it's perfectly justifiable to intervene and show the animal that people can be dangerous. Perhaps one reason the wolf is so fearless is that human beings have taught it to acquire such behavior.
SPIEGEL: How so?
Boitani: Maybe it was fed. That teaches the wolf that people are not only harmless, but that they are also willing to provide it with food. In that case, it can easily become dangerous. In 2005, wolves in Canada killed a young man who had apparently been feeding them regularly. Such animals can lose their natural fear of people.
SPIEGEL: Have you ever had that experience?
Boitani: Oh yes. Many years ago, I was on Ellesmere Island in Canada with my colleague David Mech. There were wolves living on the island, and employees at a weather station there had been feeding them every day. Those wolves were no longer afraid of us. We were able to drive up to them on our quads and watch entire packs during play, at a distance of only a few meters. Fortunately, Ellesmere Island is in the Arctic, and there are hardly any people living there for whom the wolves could become dangerous. Nevertheless, we asked the employees at the weather station to stop feeding them.
SPIEGEL: Did you experience any threatening situations there?
Boitani: David once had to slap a wolf on the snout with a glove, because he was getting too aggressive. But that was all it took. It never happened again.
SPIEGEL: So you're not afraid of wolves?
Boitani: I'm not, and usually the people who are still accustomed to having them live nearby aren't either. The better you get to know these animals, the less you fear them. The wolf was never eradicated in the Apennines in central Italy, where it has always been part of nature. The people there don't have a problem with wolves. But when they return to regions where they haven't existed for more than a century, as is the case in Germany today, people still have all these ancient stories in their heads. Of course, wolves killed people in the past. But that was before we had firearms. Wolves have learned that people can also be dangerous when they're far away, which is why they normally make a wide berth around us.
SPIEGEL: In (the northern German state of) Schleswig-Holstein, a wolf recently attacked a herd of sheep, and even when the shepherd shouted at the animal, it didn't run away at first.
Boitani: And why should it? Why should it give up its prey that easily? Do you know what a shepherd in central Italy would have done?
Boitani: He would have hit the wolf on the head with his stick.
SPIEGEL: Is that the modern way to protect a herd?
Boitani: The best method of protecting a herd of sheep from predators is still the one that has proven successful for thousands of years: Having a guard dog and a shepherd nearby. The dog stands in the wolf's path and barks, alerting the shepherd. That's the traditional way of keeping animals, and it works. Putting giant herds outside and going home at night doesn't work. The animals shouldn't be that accessible to the wolf. But you can also protect herds with electric fences.
SPIEGEL: There are parts of Germany where that isn't possible, especially along the coasts. You can't fence hundreds of kilometers of dikes, and sheep are important to preserving the landscape there.
Boitani: Then the shepherds simply have to stay with their animals. In Spain, France and Italy, for example, the European Commission has paid for hundreds of livestock guardian dogs, electric fences and the construction of small huts where the shepherds can sleep.
SPIEGEL: Are you popular among shepherds?
Boitani: I usually have a very good relationship with shepherds, but sometimes it can turn sour. I once gave a talk at a discussion meeting in Tuscany, with 500 shepherds in the audience. At the end, the Carabinieri had to escort us from the stage, or else the shepherds could very well have lynched us. And a row of police officers was posted between the scientists and the audience at an international conference in Pistoia. It happens, but usually just in places where wolves have only become indigenous again fairly recently.
SPIEGEL: Why should we want to have wolves back in the first place?
Boitani: Why are there butterflies, dogs and cats? I refuse to have to justify the existence of a species.
SPIEGEL: The wolf has many enemies, from shepherds to hunters to farmers. Some claim that wolves have not returned to some parts of Germany by natural means, but were deliberately released into the wild.
Boitani: Well, okay. That's a legend that's constantly repeated, from Spain to Finland to Russia. And it's always a story that someone has heard from someone else. Some say it was the WWF, while others say it was some forestry workers or even me. In Italy, there was a rumor that wolves were being dropped with parachutes. With parachutes! People believe the most idiotic stories.
SPIEGEL: What would be so bad about an intentional reintroduction?
Boitani: We don't even have to consider that, because it's unnecessary. Officials have only allowed wolves to be deliberately released in a single case: in Yellowstone National Park in the United States. In Europe, wolves are spreading out on their own. We attached transmitters to many animals and were able to show that they can cover enormous distances. One wolf migrated from Torino, Italy to Bonn, Germany -- about 800 kilometers (500 miles). We were able to demonstrate this using genetic analyses. Conditions in Europe are good for wolves. There are regions, in the mountains or in eastern Germany, from which human beings have largely withdrawn, and the forests there are full of wildlife. What I find most exciting about wolves is their amazing flexibility. They can make do almost everywhere, as long as they're not shot.
SPIEGEL: Well, that's strictly prohibited in most European countries. Isn't this precisely why today's wolf generations could lose their fear of humans?
Boitani: Wolves are very clever animals. The young learn from the older ones. You have to consider that we bred the domestic dog from the wolf. And dogs can learn anything! We don't have to shoot a few animals in every generation to preserve the natural fear of people. But you do have to make decisions on a case-by-case basis. I have no objection to shooting a wolf that's causing a lot of trouble. I'm a conservationist, but I'm not one of those wolf lovers who believe that every animal is sacred and has to be protected under all circumstances. We aren't doing wolves any favors with that attitude. It is possible to agree on a system of various zones. The wolf would enjoy absolute protection in some zones, while in others, such as more densely populated areas, the population would be kept smaller. The coexistence of man and wolf is a compromise, as is any other form of coexistence. It only works if human beings tolerate the damage caused by wolves to a certain extent. And wolf devotees must accept that wolves can also be killed under some conditions.
SPIEGEL: How much damage do we have to accept?
Boitani: That's a decision each country has to make for itself. The Swiss, for example, have a wolf plan that's typical of that fantastic country. If you are a wolf and want to live in Switzerland, you're welcome and are part of a protected species. You can even kill sheep, but no more than 25. You're dead if you hit 26.
SPIEGEL: Who is supposed to be counting those sheep?
Boitani: Wolf management certainly needs to be centrally organized, especially in countries with federalist systems like Germany. You don't need to constantly reinvent the wheel. There should be an agency to which shepherds, for example, can turn with their specific problems. Germany can benefit from the experiences other countries, like Italy, Poland and Romania, have already had.
SPIEGEL: Do you have any advice for politicians, who quickly need to present concerned citizens with solutions?
Boitani: My first piece of advice is not to panic. Lawmakers need to find the right advisers, neither missionary wolf protectors nor interest groups, like hunters or shepherds, but credible scientists. There are some very good people in Germany. Together with these kinds of experts, you can develop a national forum in which lobbying groups can also have their say. And you have to address citizens' concerns with information.
SPIEGEL: So even more lectures on wolves? There is certainly no lack of that in Germany today.
Boitani: More than that. Even in daycare centers and schools, a picture of wolves can be provided that differs from the one shaped by age-old fears. Lectures, TV documentaries, these things are all important. But personal encounters are even more important. Only when they have these encounters will people understand that wolves are animals, just like all other animals. Take people to where wolves live, let them hear them howling at night, show them cadavers from wolf kills, tracks, feces -- show them everything!
SPIEGEL: Wolf feces?
Boitani: Yes. It looks like dog feces, but try smelling it! The stench is horrible. You'll never forget it.
SPIEGEL: Professor Boitani, we thank you for this interview.
- Giulio Origlia/Getty Images/DER SPIEGEL