Blake Smith: On the afternoon of November 8th, 2005, a geological engineering student named Kenton Carnegie went for a walk in the woods of Saskatchewan. It was supposed to be a 90-minute excursion. Later, as the sun set, he hadn’t returned. A search party was formed, and what they found in the woods was horrifying. A beast, or beasts, had torn the young man to pieces. But what animal was responsible?
The answer has been surprisingly controversial with two camps emerging. One side believed it was a bear, and the other that it was wolves. One thing that seems clear, if you go into woods with wolves believing that they won’t harm you, there’s a chance you’ll find yourself dead wrong.
Blake: Welcome to MonsterTalk, the science show about monsters. I’m Blake Smith. Normally I have Ben Radford, or Karen Stollznow, or both, with me, but for this episode circumstances require me to conduct today’s episode solo. This episode’s a follow-up to our previous episode on wolf attacks and the specter of the big, bad wolf.
As I researched the case of the 1700 French attacks by the creature known as La Bête, it became clear to me that wolves do kill people and eat them, but if that’s true, then why don’t we see those kinds of behaviors in North America? I think that question’s answered pretty well in our interview today, but it’s worth noting that since 2005, we’ve had at least two probable cases of wolf predation on humans.
The case we’ll be talking about in this interview is that of Kenton Carnegie. But in 2010, in Alaska, Candice Berner was such a victim as well. In Russia, India, Afghanistan, and many other places in the world, wherever wolves and humans intersect there’s a risk of such attacks.
I don’t want to be lurid. The subject matter in this episode is gruesome and frightening. The warning here is not that wolves are fearsome man-killers, but remember that we humans are made of meat, and when it comes down to it, as far as the wolves are concerned, we’re no different from elk, or deer, or for that matter, sheep. We’re not magically protected by our status as intelligent creatures, rather we’re damned by our soft bellies and lack of natural defenses.
To understand what causes wolves to attack people we need to understand their behavior, and the study of animal behavior is the job of an ethologist. Today on MonsterTalk, we’ll be talking with ethologist and Professor Emeritus of Environmental Science from the University of Calgary, Canada, Professor Valerius Geist, who has extensively studied the case of Kenton Carnegie and what makes wolves eat people.
Blake: So, you’re Valerius Geist, and you’re an ethologist and Professor Emeritus of Environmental Science at the University of Calgary?
Dr. Valerius Geist: Yes.
Blake: I came across your name while researching wolf behavior and wolf violence, and specifically, about the case of Kenton Carnegie who was killed in an animal attack in…
Dr. Geist: Yes, indeed. That’s right. I was very much involved in that because his family asked me to investigate this, and I was one of three scientists who totally, independently, investigated the case and came to the conclusion that it was wolves that killed him, and, of course, prepared ourselves for to go to court on that. It was Mark McNay from Alaska, who was chosen by the court to be the speaker, and I don’t want to tell you the circumstances, but he did an absolutely first-rate job.
Mark McNay also left a large, very large, report, which was not published, and my report was not published either, incidentally, but mine has been circulating at least on the Internet.
Blake: That’s true. We’ll link to that in the show notes. Now, before we talk about the case, how did you come to study the aggressiveness of wolves?
Dr. Geist: Very simply. I’m a zoologist. I retired, and we have an acreage on Vancouver Island. We moved to this acreage in 1955 and this was a wildlife paradise. We had Trumpeter Swans in the meadows, Canada geese, pheasants, and about 120 deer also scattered through the meadow systems, back of our house.
For the next four years and being a zoologist, of course, and a hunter, I censused these, and we had about 30-some deer per square mile at that time point. Then I saw once, and only once, I saw a wolf track, and I was very excited by that because, I had seen and observed wolves when I was doing my studies of stone sheep and mountain goat, in northern British Columbia in 1961 to ‘65.
I had wolves visiting my area quite commonly, about once every two weeks, and they were a group of seven that repeatedly came, and they were very visible because they were out in the open above timberline. It was an ideal situation, much better than anything my good friend David Neech, for instance, had. My views of wolves were then formed by observing these very shy, very beautiful, very large animals, et cetera.
Now, I did work, of course, with large mammals, but only with the hoofed large mammals. With the prey of wolves, basically, and wrote in 1998, a book about deer in which I basically offered the opinion that various species different by their anti-predator strategies. But though, I had not really studied the predators myself to an extent, but I have studied the prey in detail.
Then in 1999, eighth of January, in fact, my son was here, and we went out after a snowfall and, lo and behold, we discovered a pair of wolf tracks through the back, into an area where there were quite a few deer. I said to my son, “By golly, maybe we’re going to have a pack this summer.”
Well that’s what we did, and within three months we had no more deer. They were gone completely. There were snowfalls in November and I was out there censusing and there was not a track available. So, the wolves then settled themselves around our neighbor’s place because he had sheep. They were very attractive to these animals.
He had five dogs, and the wolf pack and the dogs developed a dear-enemy complex because they met roughly at 5:30 at an old railway grade one pack on one side, the dogs on the other, and they howled and barked at each other, and this was a ritual you could set your clock by for awhile.
These wolves then ran basically, out of food and began targeting people, and I reported on that at a meeting of the Wildlife Society, and described in some detail the seven steps that which you could recognize that wolves are targeting people, and it turns out that six years earlier, two scientists in California had described exactly the seven same steps for coyotes, when they were targeting children in urban parks.
This is how I got into it, and because we were suddenly confronted with wolves, and wolves were behaving here in a manner that nobody had ever written about in North America, but they were behaving very much like Russian wolves. One thing led to the next, and I began to study wolves from the perspective of when do wolves become dangerous to people, and it’s an incredible story in many regards, but that’s how it began.
Blake: So the Carnegie case in particular was very tragic, but it was also…
Dr. Geist: Oh, my god, was it ever tragic, horribly tragic!
Blake: Yeah, it was really frustrating to read about the struggle between people who wanted it to not be a wolf killing and those who said it was.
Dr. Geist: That is correct.
Blake: How did that play out?
Dr. Geist: Well, the way it played out was the following. The people that wanted to make sure that it was not a wolf was basically, Paul Paquet. Paul Paquet is a scientist whom I have known since he was a graduate student, and I knew him as a professor as a graduate student. He was a fairly good man, but he has become not a scientist nowadays, but an advocate.
You see, from the perspective of the wolf people in those days, it was unthinkable that wolves would attack humans because there was no history of that in North America, and later on I’ll tell you why there wasn’t a history. There’s a very good explanation for that, but let’s stay with Paul Paquet.
As it started out shortly after Kenton was killed, two people that are of signal importance came to inspect the location. One was a lady. She was the coroner. She was also the information officer for the tribe, basically, and this lady had been raised in northern Saskatchewan, since she was 14 years of age.
She was raised in the bush, and she was raised by her father as a hunter, and a trapper, and a fisher. In other words she was very, very, very familiar with how to make a living in the bush as a child, as a teenager. In other words she had a very, very good education in tracking.
The second person was the constable. He was also a native from northern Saskatchewan, and he was also raised as a hunter and trapper. These people were on the spot, and the RCMP officer, the native RCMP officer, still saw the wolves there. He fired the shotgun to scare them away, and they inspected the area in detail, and between these two people, they wrote a very good report about what had happened.
Now, when this report went to the coroner of Saskatchewan, the man probably didn’t realize the significance of the people that had investigated this tragedy, and he wanted to have it hardened up, doing it by the scientific route. He got two scientists involved, one from the University of Saskatchewan. The other one was Paul Paquet.
Well, Paul Paquet came and all that Paul Paquet had to work with is what the rest of us had to work with after the fact, and that was the pictures taken by the constable of the tragedy and the scene, and I can tell you the pictures of the body is something the most horrible you can imagine.
They’re not available, god, thanks. The family has withdrawn them, and they’re keeping them under lock and key, basically, and I don’t have them either. I returned my copies to them. But when Paul looked at the pictures, he saw there was a lake, and there were very large holes in the snow. He said, “This couldn’t possibly be wolves. It must be a bear.”
Well, what he made a mistake of was so elementary, particularly in the coroner’s hearing where it came out was so embarrassing, is that if you live in the north country and you travel across a lake, you know very well that the lake ice buckles, and there are going to be lenses of water standing on the ice covered by snow, and you are going to break through those things, guaranteed.
If you walk across it, it’s going to be your footsteps in the snow very nicely, and all of a sudden, boom, you break through into the water below, which is usually about six inches or something like that. Normally, these overflows are quite shallow. You’re going to have a huge footprint as a consequence.
That’s elementary tracking. Everybody who has worked to any extent in the North Country like I have, knows right away that if anything runs across the lake, you’re going to have these big things as well as the tracks. What counts was, of course, the tracks on land as they came out from the ice.
We then took the pictures, and I know that Mark McNay took his to four colleagues in Alaska, and they examined everything, and they could find only wolf tracks and a fox track, incidentally, and I sent mine to some colleagues in Finland (not that I cannot interpret. I can.) and I interpreted what I saw in front of me as being wolf tracks and they also came up which is very cute, with a fox track. There are no bear tracks there anywhere. They’re human tracks, wolf tracks, yes, but no bear tracks. And, besides, there was fresh snow on the ground, so that was a group of scientists that examined them post hoc, but after they had examined them, the Saskatchewan government sent up two game wardens. They came a day late, and they also examined the scene and they also could find nothing else except wolf tracks.
Remember, if a bear had gone into the area, no matter how much trampling had occurred in the spot where Kenton Carnegie was killed, all they had to do was go a little bit further to see where if the bears, if they were entering, were coming, you would see the track. Bear track is utterly unmistakable. None of that was happening.
We had the two native people that examined the tracks. We had two very competent hunters, incidentally, also examining this area and only found wolf tracks. We had two game wardens examine. They also found nothing else.
Looking at the pictures, a scientist from Alaska, and two scientists from Finland, myself and Mark McNay and another gentleman from Ontario, another scientist from Ontario. All we saw was wolf tracks. The only way a bear could have been there is if he had wings, he was flying and his feet never touched the tell tale snow.
Blake: Which is very unusual for bears, right? [laughs]
Dr. Geist: It would be a touch unusual for bears. There we go. That’s right. I have written a lengthy article about that, just to clarify it. There’s been another article, a good one that came out on it as well. They’re available and I can send them to you if and when you need them.
But what was more interesting to me was to then investigate why and what were the circumstances that led to this huge tragedy and why did it happen? Why, for that matter, didn’t we have wolves behaving one way globally, and quite another one in North America?
It was crystal clear that here on the island, I had the situation where the wolves were behaving globally. They behaved like Russian wolves. The conditions of these were that they run out of food, basically, that they are in close proximity to habitations. That they then take down dogs and cats. Then they turn on to large dog, and eventually they target human beings. We’re the very last in line, mind you, but we are still on the menu, but the very last one, mind you.
What’s the difference between here, Russia? Oh, my God, in France, there’s a book out where the historian describes over 3,000 deaths. It was 3,000 people killed in France. In Italy, it’s something similar. In Germany… Anyway, why the difference?
Well, the difference is very simple. From 1920 onward into the ‘30s, ‘40s, ‘50s, ending in the ‘60s, we had a situation where in the heartland of wolf distribution in North America, which is Canada, northern Canada, there were thousands upon thousands upon thousands of impoverished men, trappers, which were trying to make a grub stake catching fur and making less than $500 a winter, incidentally, and desperately poor men, particularly in the 1920s and ‘30s.
That was virtually the only thing to have. There was no social assistance or anything of this nature. If you wanted to eat, you better have money. The only way you got money was you went trapping. We had in Alberta alone, 5,000 trappers, licensed trappers, you know? British Columbia, Saskatchewan, Manitoba, and so on and so on and so forth. You can see there are tens of thousands of trappers.
Now, these trappers had no love for wolves, guaranteed, because for two reasons. Whenever wolves show up, game disappears. The men have nothing to hunt and kill for themselves and their dog teams. It was very bitter when that happens. There was nothing to sneeze about.
I have followed the writings of some of these trappers. They escaped starvation sometimes by a hair. It was so important for them to have wildlife available to kill and to shoot for themselves. So, when wolves showed up, gone was the wildlife.
The second reason is that wolves followed their trap lines, which were very long and wolves could travel a long ways. The wolves would destroy the fur that they had caught. So they had absolutely no love for wolves, and with every means, legal or illegal, they were trying to capture these wolves on the trap line.
Now, they were, on top of that, encouraged by a bounty. The bounty was set in such a fashion that it was more worthwhile bringing in the wolf for bounty than selling the fur. This was recognized, the worthlessness of the fur, in other words, was recognized, so all they had to bring in, in Alberta was just simply the scalp of the wolf. They were getting the full payment then.
So, first of all, the trappers encouraged by a bounty and the misbehavior of wolves were trying to kill every wolf possible. Then there were native people which were also participating, but which we know very, very little. On top of that, we had predator control officers, which were operating in the livestock zones, and they were killing every wolf in sight. Then it was taken as good behavior and good form for wardens, I know that in British Columbia, to go out after the season, poisoning wolves. On top of that you had an open season on wolves for anybody to kill them any time, any place wherever you want to.
From the bounty records we know that the trappers brought in for bounty roughly in Alberta about 1,000 wolves a year at peak periods, and it turns out that there was roughly one wolf killed for every five trappers. It means it’s not that easy to do so.
Well, in addition to that, a rabies breakout in the early 1950s in the north led to fairly massive wolf poisoning from the air by horse meat being thrown out of aircraft onto lakes and along river systems and so on, so forth. That was terminated in 1961.
That’s when I went into the wilderness, incidentally in 1961. You had wildlife coming out of our ears at that point, because of the severe reduction of the wolf population which had taken place.
But the most important thing is that everybody who knew wolves in Canada, myself included, knew them only when they were at low concentration, absent in most areas, very, very shy, and these wolves were, of course, no problem. They didn’t kill livestock, because if they did, they were dead in a very short time, killed by livestock, by predator control officers.
The wolf is, in fact, some of the most remarkable observations were made in that period, because we had height of rabbit concentrations, which happen every 10 years. The wolves were taking advantage of those, and when they were on a rabbit feed, they ignored everything.
My good friend, the late Reinhold Eben-Ebenau, describes how wolves are hunting rabbits right in amongst wintering moose, and the wolves don’t give a damn about the moose, and the moose don’t give a damn about the wolves. Remarkable observations of that kind.
When the wolves are at very, very low number, when they’re being controlled by one of the most murderous machines that has ever existed in controlling wolves, of course there are no attacks on humans. There are no attacks on livestock to speak of. Wolves are very shy indeed.
It’s only when they run out of food when they are in close proximity of humans that they become a totally different animal. And so, everybody who has studied wolves ignored what I had just told you. They were not aware of that, and they thought the wolves that they met was the natural behavior of wolves. It wasn’t. It was a most unnatural behavior, because it was an artifact of extreme control.
Blake: What are the signs that wolves will hunt humans?
Dr. Geist: The signs are that they begin to observe humans. They sit down and watch and watch and watch humans. Eventually, they come closer and closer to humans. My wife and I have experienced a wolf coming to within about ten paces of us, standing there, watching us.
Wolves are observation learners. We know that from studies carried out by colleagues that studied wolves, you see? They’re observation learners, I don’t want to go into detail, but the point is, this is how you know that the wolves are targeting you, because they keep on watching and watching and following you and watching you.
Then, comes the preliminary attacks which are beautifully described for the Kenton Carnegie case, because four days before he was killed, two wolves attacked two men from the camp. One, a pilot and the other one, a physicist. The two young men grabbed hold of little trees growing in the bog and smashed them towards the wolves and kept the wolves away and thought it was a lark, basically, and returned to camp, but they took beautiful pictures of the wolves. This was an exploratory attack, and that’s totally predictable.
Blake: So, it sounds like in India from my research, as well as in Russia…
Dr. Geist: Oh, my God, yes. India and Russia, and Japan, and Korea, and Turkey, Finland, Germany, France, Italy, all of those places there’s reference. If you had the time, I could send you the articles I’ve written about that and my originals have all the references in it. You could look at that.
Blake: Yet, there seems to be this myth that wolves don’t harm people.
Dr. Geist: That’s a myth. By the way, this myth has killed more than just Kenton Carnegie. It killed three people that I know of.
Blake: Well, that is very helpful. I really appreciate your time on this.
Dr. Geist: OK. I have to run, actually. [laughs]
Blake: Yeah, I know. Thank you so much for talking to me. I really appreciate it. We’ll put links to your material on the website. Thank you.
Blake: Thank you for listening to another episode of MonsterTalk. Today, you heard an interview with Professor Valerius Geist discussing the causes of wolf attacks on humans.
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