‘Germany’s most politicized animal’: How wild wolves are causing a stir

The sneak attack happened at a cemetery and quickly turned into a whodunnit that fired up a heated debate about the return of wolves to the wild in Germany.

'Germany's most politicized animal': How wild wolves are causing a stir
A wolf photographed in Springe, Lower Saxony, on Tuesday. Photo: DPA

A municipal gardener reported kneeling by a cast-iron fence one November morning when a four-legged predator approached from behind and sank its fangs into his left forearm.

Stunned, the 55-year-old man, who has not been publicly named, struck the beast with a hammer and scared it off, according to his report to town
authorities in Steinfeld, Lower Saxony.

“Man Attacked By Wolf,” headlined the tabloid-style Bild newspaper, only
adding a question mark — and thus, an element of doubt over whether the
unconfirmed attack actually happened — lower down in the article.

SEE ALSO: What to know about the growing wolf population debate in Germany

Laboratory tests on the bite wound, the man's clothing and hammer found no saliva, fur or other genetic traces of a wolf. Some observers have wondered whether the culprit might have been a wild dog.

While the gardener walked away with a bite wound and a bad fright, the case has assumed fundamental importance in a highly politicised debate.

Wolves were extinct in Germany for over 150 years, only making a comeback in 2000 after they began crossing the border with Poland. Since then, no attacks on humans had been recorded.

A wolf in Spring, Lower Saxony, on Tuesday. Photo: DPA

Campfire vigils

Environmentalists have celebrated the return of the European grey wolf, a
keystone species rooted in German folklore and the fairytales of the Brothers Grimm.

But the animals provoke fear and loathing among sheep farmers, equestrians — and some mainly right-wing politicians, who have seized on the issue in a year with three regional elections in eastern Germany, prime wolf territory.

The anti-wolf lobby points to wolf attacks like one last October when the
hunters ripped through a fenced-in herd of sheep and wrought havoc, leaving some 40 bloody carcasses strewn across a field.

Farmers often complain that putting up electric fences and using dogs to guard their flocks is impractical and expensive.

A growing band of wolf opponents has staged campfire vigils and launched petitions and social media campaigns against what they see as a ruthless killer.

The far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) party, best known for railing
against immigrants, was first to campaign against the furry newcomers.

Echoing their language on restricting the number of asylum seekers in
Germany, they have demanded an “Obergrenze”, or upper limit, for the wolf population.

“Animals lose their fear of humans if they stop seeing them as a natural
enemy,” said the AfD's main spokeswoman on wolves in Saxony state, in a recent statement.

“In the case of the wolf, this can lead to attacks… including on humans.”

By coincidence, her name is Silke Grimm.

Some observers have suggested that many of the 700-800 wolves estimated to roam Germany are actually wolf-dog hybrids, which would exclude them from wolves' protected status.

“Bastards in Germany — Dogs in Wolves' Clothing?” ran a provocative headline in hunting magazine “Jagd und Hund” (“Game and Hound”).

Chancellor Angela Merkel's conservative CDU party, which has suffered heavy losses at the hands of the AfD, has recently voiced support for regional wolf culls to limit their population growth.

Wolf pups in Neuhaus, Lower Saxony, on Saturday. Photo: DPA

'Mafia wolf' mystery

Nature guide Stephan Kaasche's jaw clenches when he is asked about the proposed culls.

Kaasche, 43, is firmly in the pro-wolf camp, having turned his boyhood love for the animals into a full-time job as a wildlife lecturer.

“Ten percent of wolves are already shot illegally now,” he said. “But that
doesn't stop wolves from approaching towns, just as it doesn't stop wild
boars. It just doesn't work like that.”

On a frosty morning recently, Kaasche was standing, binoculars in hand, at the edge of a huge former open-pit coal mine turned nature reserve in Saxony's Lausitz region.

It was around here, near the Polish border, that Germany's first litter of
wolf pups was born in the wild in 2000 to a female dubbed “One-Eye”.

Scanning the post-industrial wastelands, Kaasche's eyes light up.

“There, a wolf,” he exclaimed, pointing at a long-legged juvenile slinking
through the distant underbrush.

Others at this point would have loved to pull the trigger.

In fact, some 280 wolves have been killed by humans in Germany since 2000, according to a police count.

Most were run over, but about three dozen were illegally shot, and several
were beheaded.

Last June, a bloated wolf's carcass even surfaced in a Lausitz village lake. Since it had been weighed down with a concrete block, police dubbed it the “mafia wolf” case.

The strange way the wolf was disposed of however is perhaps not such a
mystery, given that harming or killing a wolf carries a penalty of up to five
years' jail.

Some local hunters have reportedly adopted the “three-S rule” — short for
“shoot, shovel, silence”.

'Uncertainty and fear'

The debate over Germany's wolves is often portrayed as one between
idealistic green urbanites and more hard-headed country folk, who just want to protect their livelihoods and families.

A wolf resting in Springe, Lower Saxony on Tuesday. Photo: DPA

“The wolf is Germany's most politicized animal,” wrote the news weekly Die Zeit. “You're either with them or against them.”

Newspaper publisher Stefan Aust has argued that “the wolf was already
mythologised under the Nazis as a kind of master animal.

“Now, for different reasons, it has become a symbol for a naive glorification of nature.”

As for the cemetery attack, the jury is still out. No-one else witnessed it
– apart from three other wolves, the gardener says were there.

While Kaasche insisted that wolves do not consider humans as food, he
conceded that a curious juvenile might approach a kneeling person.

Fears of wolf attacks in Germany mostly date from the time when rabies was prevalent and a bite from an infected animal was fatal, he said.

But Germany has been rabies-free for a decade, he pointed out.

“What this story has certainly done,” he added, “is stoke uncertainty and

By Frank Zeller

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France’s wolf population rises once again

France's wild wolf population rose again last year, with officials counting 580 adults at winter's end compared with an average of 530 a year ago, France's OFB biodiversity agency said Tuesday.

France's wolf population rises once again
A woman holds an image of a wolf as people take part in a demonstration of several wildlife conservation associations, to protest against the hunting of wolves. AFP

The government has been allowing grey wolves to multiply despite fierce resistance from livestock owners, who say they are suffering from increased attacks on their flocks.

But this winter's increase was slower than the 23 percent jump seen the previous year, and “survival rates declined,” the OFB said, adding that the causes remained unknown.

Wolves were hunted to extinction in France by the 1930s, but gradually started reappearing in the 1990s as populations spread across the Alps from Italy.

Their numbers have grown rapidly in recent years, prompting authorities to allow annual culls to keep their numbers in check, though the predator remains a protected species.

READ ALSO: Where in France will you find wolves?

Under a “Wolf Plan” adopted in 2018, the “viability threshold” of 500 animals, the level at which the population is likely to avoid becoming at risk of extinction over a 100-year period, was not expected to be reached until 2023.

Wolves are increasingly spotted across French territory, from the Pyrenees mountains as far north as the Atlantic coastal regions near Dieppe.

But “there are still no packs formed outside the Alps and Jura,” the heavily forested region near the Swiss border, the agency said.

The numbers are far below those found in Italy, Romania or Poland, but they have nonetheless infuriated French farmers who say the wolves are decimating their flocks.

Last year, authorities registered 3,741 wolf attacks that led to the deaths of nearly 12,500 animals, mainly sheep.

The government offers compensation for the losses and has set up a range of measures to protect flocks, including patrols by “wolf brigades” in areas where traditional anti-wolf measures, such as dogs, fenced-off areas and 
additional shepherding, have failed.

That has not been enough to assuage the powerful FNSEA agriculture lobby and other groups, which say they have to wait too long for compensation payments in the face of repeated attacks on their livelihood.