Grimm's Nightmare Wolves Solidify Paw-Hold in Germany

Germany is hardly known as a country full of predators lurking in the forests. But for five years now, the wolf population has been establishing a solid foothold in the country. And now, they are set to expand throughout Germany's east.

It's an odd bit of decoration to see hanging on an office wall: the knee joint of a deer carcass, complete with cracked lower leg, mounted and prominently displayed. To the uninitiated, it's a gruesome knick-knack that seems especially out of place in the heart of Europe. But for wolf expert Ilka Reinhardt, it is something of a trophy.

Abnormal calcium deposits on the joint show that its owner was sick -- before it became dinner for a pack of prowling wolves. For Reinhardt, though, the interesting part is where it was found: near her office and home in the tiny town of Spreewitz in eastern Germany, not far from the Polish border. The grisly bit of deer corpse is just one more sign that wolves, after centuries of struggling to survive among a European populace bent on their destruction, are making a miraculous comeback.

"We have more wolves living in Germany right now  than we have had in 200 years," Reinhardt says, clearly pleased. "Before, they were hunted with whatever means available, even poison. But for the last 10 years the populations have been increasing all over Europe."

Bouncing Baby Wolves

The effects of that destruction remain, however. Whereas Canis lupus was a common part of the fauna just a couple of centuries ago, the populations in Western Europe now tend to be miniscule and isolated. Wolves in Eastern Europe, while more numerous, are likewise pressured. The wolf population figures in Western Europe rarely rise above a few dozen: Norway has just 20, Switzerland knows of three wolves living there, and there are only nine packs roaming the wilds of Sweden.

Germany is home to just 30 wolves, says Reinhardt, who spends many a night driving wildly through the black Saxony night trying to follow the radio signals given off by a collar she has managed to fit on one of the local animals. Yet while the number may seem paltry, it comes after decades of single sightings of lone wolves -- or discoveries of bullet-ridden carcasses. Indeed, the four packs near Spreewitz are the first ones to reproduce on German soil in centuries. This year alone, they had a bumper crop of 15 bouncing baby wolves.

What that means for Germany's lupine population is clear. "Wolf mothers usually give birth in May," Reinhardt explains. "After a year or sometimes two, the offspring look for an area of their own to settle. Just like humans, they grow up and leave home."

Since 2002, some 30 wolves have disappeared from the area around Spreewitz and nobody has a clue where they've gone. While many may have been poached, or mowed down in traffic, a recent study shows that wide swaths of eastern Germany along with chunks of the southern and western part of the country would make ideal homes for wolves looking to settle down. Armed with legal protection -- wolves in eastern Germany have been sheltered by German law since 1990 and they have also enjoyed a privileged place in European Union law for almost two decades -- their continued spread is likely.

Skin, Hair and Everything

Perhaps unsurprisingly, not all of Reinhardt's neighbors in her sparsely populated corner of Saxony are excited about the idea of sharing their habitat with fleet-footed, largely unseen predators. Wolves, after all, have a history in Europe of being blamed for much of what is wrong with the world.

A number of myths from Eastern Europe and Scandinavia claim the wolf was created by the devil, and European nightmares have long been populated by the diabolical werewolf. Generations of German children have been told by the Brothers Grimm in "The Wolf and the Seven Young Kids": "Be on your guard against the wolf, if he comes in, he will devour you all -- skin, hair, and everything." Hitler's headquarters in the forests of present-day Poland was called the "Wolf's Lair."

Indeed, given the miserable reputation the wolf enjoys in the popular imagination, the state of Saxony -- home to all of the wolves known to be living in Germany -- has set up an office to do a little PR on the wolves' behalf. The office sends experts to local schools, teaches people about the wolf lifestyle and sets up booths at town fairs complete with displays of wolf skulls and dried wolf excrement. So far they have given 130 educational presentations that have been attended by more than 5,000 locals.

"We aren't denying the danger," says Jana Schellenberg, who runs the wolf bureau, in a voice that speaks to the hundreds of times she's repeated the same sentence. "But we are trying to relativize it and tell people that the danger of being harmed by a wolf tends toward zero. I have the feeling that many of the fears that were there at the beginning have been reduced quite a bit."

Protecting the Species

Still, there remain a number of humans living in the eastern German wolf habitat who aren't overly ecstatic about their new neighbors. Joachim Bachmann, a resident of the tiny hamlet of Bärwalde near Spreewitz, says he is concerned that the wolf population is growing out of control and represents a threat to humans. In 2004, he even tried to convince a court to allow the shooting of wolves in Saxony. He was denied.

Undeterred, he has since founded the Association of Safety and Species Protection which counts a number of other hunters in the area among its members. The goal?

"We have to ask ourselves the question as to what the consequences are," says Association spokesman Christian Lissina. "Everyone was euphoric that the wolves were coming back. But we want to know what that means for those living in the region."

The group is intent on establishing respectability, and Lissina seems only slightly defensive in quoting Canadian biology professor Valerius Geist and his work on the potential dangers posed by wolves to humans.

But Lissina reserves most of his passion for verbal assaults on the wolves themselves. They are not, he claims even real wolves. Instead, he says, citing fellow wolf-skeptics the group had flown in from Finland and Russia, they are hybrids -- the result of wolves mating with domesticated dogs. More than that, he says the wolves did not, as Reinhardt and Kluth claim, wander over from populations next door in Poland. Rather, he contends they have been planted by misguided nature lovers.

'Denial and Lies'

"Nowhere in the world are there so many wolves in such a small area," Lissina says. "Game is part of the local economy. But now, an uncontrolled number of animals is being destroyed. The game is being wiped out."

Reinhardt has little patience for Lissina and Bachmann's group and is confident that her years of collecting footprints, trailing animals, having lupine feces DNA-analyzed and observing the local packs in the wild allows her a certain aura of disdain when dismissing their claims.

"It is ok not to know," she allows. "But there really isn't much we can do against the dissemination of denial and lies."

Reinhardt's frustration is no doubt enhanced by the fact that a main part of her job description is limiting the amount of bad press wolves get in the first place. For years, she has worked closely with sheep farmers to prevent wolves from adding domesticated animals to their standard diet of red deer, roe deer and baby boar (they eat between two and four kilograms of meat a day on average). It was, in fact, the violent deaths of 33 sheep in the area that advertised the presence of wolves in the first place.

One of the primary facets of her job is to educate local sheep farmers about building electric fences to keep the wolves out. But she's already looking ahead -- to a time when wolves become a fact of life for Germans all over the country. For the moment, there is little money for the kind of nation-wide monitoring program that she envisions. Indeed, Reinhardt frequently has to beg the state and national governments for the funds just to continue her modest operation. But as the wolf population grows, it will become necessary.

"Of course wolves will cause conflicts," she says. "We have to recognize that. But if you also recognize that they have a right to exist and to spread, then there are certain steps that should be taken so that people understand them. We are the ones with intelligence. We have to use it."

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