The site of the accident, on Germany's B-6 federal highway, looked like a scene out of a horror film. Shattered glass and car parts had been flung all over the place, as had been the blood-smeared bodies of animals. Medics at the site counted seven dead horses. Two seriously injured motorists had to be taken to the hospital. Both cars were wrecked beyond salvage.
The crash, which happened on an important traffic artery between the cities of Meissen and Riese in the eastern German state of Saxony in December, sent shock waves that rippled well beyond the medics dispatched to clean up the mess. Hunters in the region are convinced that wild wolves caused the horses to panic. The horses had escaped from a paddock and stood close together on the B-6 as cars raced by at high speeds in both directions.
Wolves returned to Saxony more than a decade ago, and ever since, nature conservationists have been battling with hunters and farmers in the region. On the one side, people are pleased that these wild animals, the subject of many a myth and which had been extinct in the country for some 150 years, have found a home again in Germany. But the other side views the wolf enthusiasts as crazy and fears the predators are killing sheep and deer in droves. Initially, the animals had settled in the state's rural Lausitz region, but now that they are encroaching on cities, a new debate has flared.
Hunters Warn of Fear in Everyday Life
Members of district hunting association in Meissen, an idyllic city with a castle that is world famous for its porcelain, recently criticized the wolves' return in a letter to the Saxony state interior minister that included the header "urgent". In it, the hunters lament that Saxony has the "world's densest population of wolves," and that it is increasing. It goes on to say that they worry not only about public safety, but also that "previously unseen mass packs" of up to 40 wild boar had been lurking about in the Meissen area recently.
The hunters claim the animals have joined together in large packs out of fear of the wolves and are causing tremendous damage. They also claim that local partridges, pheasants, hares, owls and skylarks are disappearing, devoured by wolves and other predators. Something has to be done, the hunters warn -- otherwise fear "will become an unwelcome part of daily life."
The state of Saxony has indeed become a haven for the wolf, although not to extent of that seen in Poland or the United States, where there are far more of the animals per square kilometer. Saxony is estimated to be home to 11 wolf pairs or packs with up to nine animals in each. Across Germany, there are 26 such groupings. The people feeling the brunt of the increasing numbers of wolves are farmers. Since 2002, wolves have killed 409 sheep, 20 goats, 12 deer in enclosures, one cow and one dog in the state.
Humans Greatest Threat to Wolves
The accident involving the horses and the injured drivers suggests the problem may now have spread to the roads. In mid-January, suspicions that a wolf may have killed a German shepherd in a kennel in Lausitz also helped to escalate tensions. The regional Mitteldeutsche Zeitung reported extensively on the incident, and even the Saxony state environment minister felt compelled to weigh in defending wolves in the Sächsische Zeitung newspaper.
Wolves are provided with strong protection under German law, but humans still represent their greatest threat. Since 2000, some 30 wolves have died in Saxony after getting hit by cars. Five wolves have been killed illegally. Near the town Driewitz, also in the Lausitz region, an unidentified driver chased a wolf down a fenced-in forest path and ran it over. And on Dec. 13, just three days after the accident on the B-6, a wolf pup died after being shot by a shotgun.
The highway accident offers new arguments for the wolves' opponents in the region. The pack of critics is led by Wernher Gerhards, a man fond of describing himself as a science journalist. He has written an evaluation of the accident based on what he sees as hard evidence. He believes wolves drove the horses from their paddock and claims to have discovered wolf tracks in three different places as well as wolf dung, which he has stored in his freezer. According to his theory, the horses were frightened two times by the wolves. A short time before the deadly accident, he says the horses broke out of their enclosure. The owner was able to capture the expensive Trakehner horses with the help of police, but they were frightened again even as they were being taken back home.
Horse expert Hans-Joachim Schwark finds this version to be plausible. A professor emeritus in animal husbandry from Leipzig, Schwark says that flight animals (those, like horses, which flee danger), react "extremely sensitively" to wolves, even if, as in this case, they are being led by someone with extensive horse experience.
Thus far, nothing has been proven. Gerhards does not want to pass along his evaluation to the authorities out of fear that wolf-friendly politicians will "play down the issue." Government officials, on the other hand, have not sent an expert of their own. Wolf expert Gesa Kluth, who works at the Contact Office Wolves in Saxony, says that Gerhards has never approached her office for consultation. She adds that it is easy to confuse wolf tracks with those of dogs. "At the moment, there is no proof that wolves are active in the region of the accident," she says. But, she adds, the possibility cannot be excluded.
The environmental protection group WWF has offered a €10,000 ($13,500) award for the capture of the wolf poacher from Lohsa and has demanded that a special law enforcement force be established to investigate the crime. Normal law enforcement bureaus, the group added, are unequipped to handle such offenses.
In the meantime, laboratories in Gelnhausen and Berlin have been able to use genetic tests to determine what happened to the German shepherd Udo. It wasn't a wolf. Rather it was the neighbor dog, a great Dane named Honey.