By Michael R. Veine
Animal rights groups have long advocated wolves and other large predators as a more humane and natural substitute for hunters for controlling deer and other game species. Truth is, if most people knew more about wolves and their feeding habits, they’d choose hunters to do the job. The true behavior of wolves is often glossed over by media, leading to widespread ignorance on the subject.
While researching this article, I came across a website that featured a video clip of a pack of wolves howling. The site invited visitors to comment on the video, and the remarks were shocking. “Wolves are so cute that I want to hug them and kiss them,” was one comment. Now I’ve heard the term “bunny hugger” before, but that comment took the cake.
The writer returned to the scene the next day and took this photo of the wolf tracks.
Anybody who thinks wolves are friendly or cuddly is living in a fantasy world. I’m neither a wolf lover nor a wolf hater. Wolves are what they are, and their entire lives revolve around killing to survive. They are not evil, but they certainly are not more humane than hunters when it comes to taking prey. The particulars on how wolves deal out death is perhaps one of the most misunderstood aspects of wildlife behavior.
Nature Isn’t Pretty
Last October, I was bird hunting in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula along the Escanaba River. It was a calm outing until I began to hear agonized bellows in the distance. Stalking in the direction of the noise, I came upon a wolf attacking a deer. At first the wolf chased the adult doe along the riverbank. The wolf inflicted bites on the back of the doe’s legs, keeping up the assault until she was eventually hamstrung. As soon as she was rendered unable to run, the wolf began to feed. From the opposite side of the river, I snuck in closer and pulled out my digital camera.
The wolf’s feeding was gruesome. It ripped the hide free around the doe’s left hock and then put its paws on her hips for leverage. With the deer’s entire hind quarter exposed, the wolf chomped off big chunks of muscle as the deer continued to bellow in agony.
The writer took this photo from across the Escanaba River in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. A white-tailed doe, its left hindquarter almost completely eaten away, struggles to escape the wolf that is intent on making it his dinner.
As an outdoorsman, I try not to project human emotion to animals, but the wolf seemed to enjoy the bawling. It had the same gleeful look on its face that I often see my dog display when I wrestle and play with him. Eventually, after what seemed like an eternity, the wolf slipped off into the bush. I stayed hidden and waited.
The wolf reappeared a while later and resumed the feast with the deer still wailing at every bite. The wolf repeatedly left and returned until the struggling deer thrashed its way into the river, after which the wolf left for good. I thought the doe was dead, as she lay there unmoving for a long time.
I don’t know if she had passed out or was playing possum, but eventually she regained enough strength to drag herself by her front feet up onto the riverbank. She lay there looking around with an amazingly calm expression on her face. I waited there for several more hours, but eventually I couldn’t watch any more and left.
Several friends chastised me for not stopping the carnage or for failing to put the deer out of its misery. Believe me, I wanted to put a stop to it, but doing so would have been illegal. While they have recently been delisted, at that time, wolves were considered an endangered species in Michigan. Also, if I had interfered, the wolf would likely have never returned, thus wasting the resource.
This doe eventually crawled down into the river. Whether full or just waiting for the doe to die, the wolf left the area for several hours and hadn’t returned when the writer had to leave the area. At the time of this event, wolves were on Michigan’s endangered list, making it a crime to interfere with it or the doe in any way.
I returned the next morning, armed with a video camera. I waited in the frosty, 20-degree wilderness for several hours but saw nothing. Eventually, I slipped on my waders and crossed the river. I stalked to the area where the attack had taken place but couldn’t find the deer. I did come across some wolf tracks, which I photographed.
Later, after a more thorough investigation, I found the doe’s lower jaw bone and a tuft of hair. Everything else had been devoured. Based on the jawbone, I was able to determine the doe’s age to be at least 2 1/2.
As wolf numbers continue to grow and expand, they are becoming more of an issue in whitetail country. They compete for the same deer resource as human hunters, and they are causing some safety concerns, too. In 2006, I saw 13 wolves in the U.P.; I heard wolves howling at least a dozen times, too. They are now a part of the ecosystem in my neck of the woods, so I’ve made it a point to find out as much about them as I can. Based on what I’ve learned, there are more misconceptions out there about wolf and prey interactions, particularly their killing and eating habits, than there is truth.
The Hamstring Factor
Dr. David Mech is a noted wolf researcher from Minnesota. He told me that it’s typical for wolves to attack deer and other prey from the rear in an attempt to immobilize their hind legs. Much bogus information has been published on how wolves won’t hamstring prey and how they kill with surgical precision. That’s wishful thinking, at best. I watched several videos that showed wolves attacking and bringing down prey. In the dozens of attacks documented in those productions, all showed wolves attacking and bringing down big game by hamstringing. It is their preferred method to disable prey; and while it’s not pretty, it’s certainly effective.
Contrary to What You’ve Heard ...
Pioneering wolf researcher Dr. Durward Allen recorded that wolves are not the quick, clean killers most people believe they are. Allen’s research demonstrated that wolves typically kill by literally tearing their prey apart. When a pack is involved, death can be quick, but oftentimes the process takes a long time. Allen reported that all that’s required for the feeding process to start is that the prey can’t flee.
Dr. Dave Mech said, “Wolves will often pull down deer and other big game and begin feeding on them before they are dead. A wolf’s first concern is his stomach. They do not have feelings like a human, and they are not capable of caring if a prey animal suffers.”
Dr. John Vucetich is a Michigan Tech professor and wolf researcher who has studied wolves on Isle Royale and the U.P. for many years. Vucetich said, “I’ve seen wolves take prey down many times, and it still always affects me emotionally every time I see it. Wolves typically kill by biting at the hindquarters until shock sets in.” It is just a matter of luck when a bite hits a major blood vessel and causes the prey to bleed to death.
Surplus killing is when wolves kill more than they can eat. Considering the fact that I’ve witnessed many examples of wolf surplus kills, it shocks me that some people still deny the reality of this issue. It is a proven and well documented characteristic of wolf behavior that they sometimes kill in excess of what they eat.
“Wolves usually first feed on the prime parts, including the hindquarters and other large muscle groups, along with the internal organs,” Dr. Vucetich said. “They also typically eat the hide and hair, which helps them with their digestion of meat and bone. They even eat the bones, starting with the ribs, then the legs, skull and vertebrae.
“They usually leave the lower jaw and teeth, though, as those tidbits are highly indigestible. On kills made during the summer and fall, nearly the entire animal will be devoured, bones, hide and all. During the winter and spring, though, in areas with abundant prey, they will usually eat less of the carcasses. In many cases they will only eat the prime parts. On rare occasions wolves won’t feed on their kills at all.”
Vucetich went on to say, “Surplus killing is like a short-circuit in the wolf where its instinct to kill somehow overrides its need for food. Surplus killing typically occurs when their prey is malnourished and deep snow conditions make them easy targets. Heavy concentrations of deer, such as with logging operations, can lead to surplus killing. Many people believe that surplus killing is a waste; however waste is a human concept. Surplus kills are typically used up by scavengers.”
Unfortunately, surplus killing is very common when wolves encounter livestock. It’s not uncommon for wolves to kill an entire herd of stock and feed on just one or two. That is why many ranchers and farmers hold wolves in such low regard.
Attacks on Humans
There are wolf proponents who perpetuate the false rumor that there have never been any cases of humans being attacked by wolves in North America. That is nonsense. In 2005, a 22-year-old university student from Oshawa was killed by wolves in northern Saskatchewan. In 2006, a lone wolf attacked and seriously injured six people, including three children, at Lake Superior Provincial Park in Ontario. That wolf was later killed by rangers, and it tested negative for rabies. Wolf attacks are rare, but as wolf numbers increase, it’s logical to expect wolf-human conflicts to increase.
T.R. Mader, a noted wolf researcher from South Dakota, has compiled a list detailing incidents of wolf attacks on humans. “Because of federal protection of wolves, they have become habituated to humans,” Mader said. “There are more and more accounts of wolves that show no fear of man. If things continue as they are, it’s just a matter of time before wolf attacks become much more commonplace.”
His report on wolf attacks can be found at www.aws.vcn.com, the website for the Abundant Wildlife Society of North America. Mader has compiled a chronicle of just some of the cases of wolf attacks on humans, and the accounts will keep you reading for hours. Be warned, though, when you venture into wolf country, reading about all the attacks will keep you looking over your shoulder, especially in the dark.
This article was published in the September, 2008 edition of Buckmasters Whitetail Magazine. Join today to have Buckmasters delivered to your home.