Who’s afraid of the big bad dog?

 

Shock waves are still spreading over the news that last November, a Canadian was apparently killed by wolves. The conservationist mantra has always been that healthy wolves don’t kill humans. But in this case, which happened in Saskatchewan, evidence indicates that they did: A 22-year-old man was found mauled and partially eaten in an area frequented by wolves.

Foes of wolves seized on the incident to bolster their belief in the animals’ basic savagery. David Withers, chairman of the Wolf Committee of the Wisconsin Bear Hunters' Association, solemnly issued a warning to be wary in the woods.

"These predators are at the top of the food chain,..." Withers said, "and they could pose a threat to human safety."

Personally, I’ve never understood why anyone believed wolves would harbor any scruples about killing human beings under the right circumstances. On the other hand, I’ve never understood why many of the people who grow most indignant over the threat of wolves think nothing of turning their pet dogs out to run every day.

It’s a credo of the West, evidently, that dogs should roam free. Certainly there are plenty here that do — in towns, on Indian reservations, throughout the countryside. In Montezuma County, Colo., where I live, the law-enforcement blotter regularly contains reports of dogs killing livestock, nipping at cyclists on county roads and biting pedestrians. This winter, dogs were blamed for killing or injuring more than 40 sheep or goats at the Cortez Livestock Auction. And in February, a 52-year-old woman on the nearby Ute Mountain Ute Reservation was hospitalized after being mauled by five dogs while walking home.

If she’d been mauled by wolves, the attack would have made headlines nationwide. There would have been calls to reduce the animals’ numbers, even exterminate them from the wild. Because her attackers were dogs, people shrugged and accepted it as a fact of life.

Dogs and wolves are very much alike, so it’s a mystery why they are viewed in such different ways. Wolves are seen as cunning and malevolent, dogs as loving and innocent. Yet it’s dogs by far who pose the greater threat to human safety.

There are maybe 10,000 wolves in the United States (half of those in Alaska), vs. 70 million dogs. Since 1900, wolves have killed, so far as we know, one person. Domestic dogs kill a dozen or more people every year. According to the Centers for Disease Control, in 1997 and 1998, at least 27 people in the United States were killed by dogs, and a few more people died while being chased by dogs. The CDC also found that dogs bite more than 4.7 million people annually, 1 million of whom seek medical treatment. The estimated medical costs ensuing from these bites exceed $164 million a year.

Can you imagine the outrage if cougars, wolves, or bears were wreaking such havoc on the human population? There is little hue and cry, however, over the dog-bite epidemic.

Nor is there much of an outcry over domestic dogs preying on livestock. Wolf foes fume over every calf or sheep slain by wild predators, but the same folks don’t become hysterical over killings by dogs. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, wolves account for under two-hundredths of 1 percent of all cattle deaths, while domestic dogs are second only to coyotes in the amount of livestock they kill. Where are the calls for aerial gunning of stray pets?

Why, in fact, do we tolerate such a dangerous species in our midst? Because, of course, dogs bring us enormous pleasure. And while we may bemoan the fact that there are a heck of a lot of irresponsible owners, we still don’t want to eradicate their pets.

Well, wolves bring pleasure to many people too. Just witness the hordes who gather in Yellowstone National Park hoping to catch a glimpse of canis lupus. And many other people who will never see a wolf in the wild take satisfaction in knowing they are out there.

Don’t get me wrong. I don’t want to be killed by wolves, and I have a healthy respect for the threat they pose. But maybe we ought to accord them some of the affection and respect we harbor for their very close cousins, our pet dogs. And if we’re genuinely concerned about the problem of canines chewing on humans and slaughtering calves, the first measure we ought to take is putting Rover behind a fence.

Gail Binkly is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org).

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