After wolves have been absent from Germany for such a long time, we need some time to get used to the presence of this predator in our neighbourhood. Most people only know wolves from animal parks or zoological gardens, from old stories, myths and fairy tales or adventure movies. The most popular image that stories present today is that of the "big bad wolf". This image mainly developed in Europe in medieval times when attacks on livestock, competition for prey and fear of rabies led to the humans' negative attitude towards wolves. Even today this negative image influences the way wolves are often perceived and provokes fear and prejudice.
Danger for humans?
As is known, humans are not the natural prey of wolves. However many people fear that this might change if wolves are very hungry, no longer find any natural prey animals or learn that humans are not dangerous for them. This fear is unfounded.
Wolves are wary of humans by their very nature. They thus avoid encounters with humans even in our cultural landscape without any hunting pressures. Wolves' extreme wariness towards potential enemies and threats is one of the animal's proven survival strategies. Wolves usually retreat before we are able to notice them. It is much more probable that you will by chance see a wolf crossing the road from your car in the wolf country.
In 2002, the Norwegian Institute for Nature Research (NINA) published the study "The fear of wolves: a review of wolf attacks on humans" that provides comprehensive information on the potential danger of wolves to humans. This study contains reports about wolf attacks on humans and their causes in Scandinavia, Central Europe, Asia and Northern America and an evaluation of these. It shows that attacks of wolves on humans are very rare as a rule. Since the middle of the 20th century, nine cases have become known where people were killed by a wild wolf. The respective wolves suffered from rabies in five of these cases. In the past, there were only individual cases where a healthy wolf attacked or even killed a human. Wolf attacks on humans can primarily be attributed to three causes: rabies, provocation and food conditioning.
Rabies is a fatal virus disease that was considered the main cause of wolf attacks in former times. This disease has been eradicated from Germany since 2008 and is also deemed largely defeated in its neighbouring countries thanks to the rabies immunisation of foxes.
Under today's circumstances, provocation of a wolf is a rather unlikely scenario, since, according to the study, this risk mainly affected livestock keepers who tried to defend their animals by cornering the wolf with a stick or hay fork or hunters who tried to remove pups from a den.
Today in our cultural landscape, the most probable cause of the dangerous behaviour of wolves towards humans is a strong habituation to humans connected with positive stimuli such as feeding the animals (food conditioning). Food-conditioned wolves are different from other wolves in so far that, due to these positive stimuli, they are interested in humans and approach them actively. If these expected positive stimuli (e.g. food) are no longer provided, the respective wolves may develop a pushy, bold and, in the worst case, even aggressive behaviour.
To avoid misunderstandings: all wild animals, i.e. also wolves that live in cultural landscapes must habituate to the presence of humans to a certain degree. They learn to tolerate humans and human activities to a certain extent. Wolves having grown up in countries such as Spain, Poland or also Germany know humans. They are used to human odours, noises and sometimes also to their sight. Such habituation does not lead to problematic behaviour per se. If wolves have experienced human presence as being without negative consequences, they usually react carefully when they encounter a person or vehicle but are not extremely shy. They remain wary towards humans and, as a rule, do not approach them actively. They typically seem to be indifferent and mostly move away without any haste.
Wolves who live in a cultural landscape must cope with the fact that there are human settlements throughout their habitat. It is thus inevitable that they pass by these settlements or sometimes even pass through them, in the case of scattered settlements, in the same way as other wild animals. Due to the fact that wolves are mainly active at dawn, dusk and night, they will do this under the cover of darkness. Keeping sheep and goats in settlements or near farms without any suitable enclosure thus does not provide safe protection, particularly overnight. Occasionally, wolves may, however, also appear in broad daylight, as is the case with foxes, deer or wild boar.
This is part of the wolf's normal behaviour as is the fact that, due to their curiosity and naivety, young wolves often maintain a shorter escape distance to humans than adult wolves.
As experience from other countries shows too, this behaviour does not make wolves who live in a cultural landscape more dangerous than animals of the same species who live in uninhabited areas or are hunted. It is important that wolves do not connect any direct positive experience with the closeness of humans (food conditioning as mentioned above). There are wolf territories in Italy and Poland, for example, that are as densely settled as the wolf territories in Germany and do not allow any (legal) wolf hunts either. Nevertheless, wolves do not show any sign of losing their wariness towards humans in these territories. The same applies to wolves growing up in national parks with a lot of visitors which have not had any negative experiences with humans.