In the new Liam Neeson movie The Grey, a group of oil rig workers must defend themselves from a pack of vicious wolves after their plane crashes in the Alaskan wilderness. In a scene from the trailer, Neeson’s character threatens one of the animals by brandishing two fistfuls of broken miniature liquor bottles at it. What’s the best way to fend off aggressive wolves?
Intimidate them. Yelling, throwing sticks or stones, waving your arms, and generally making yourself look as big and scary as possible can deter predatory wolves, which tend to become submissive when other animals demonstrate dominance. Short or immobilized people and children are more vulnerable to wolf attacks than tall, able-bodied adults, since wolves are more likely to see them as potential prey. (Naturally, such people are also less able to make themselves look big and scary.) If you have weapons like pepper spray or a gun, you can certainly scare away or kill a wolf, but counterattacking with a handful of broken bottles might backfire. Though glass knuckles might drive off a wolf by causing it pain, they could also break and cut your hand, making it harder for you to defend yourself.
If you can’t scare a wolf away and you don’t have a viable weapon, you might try to wrestle it into submission. One Canadian man, Fred Desjarlais, dissuaded an attacking wolf by putting it into a headlock; another, Diamond Jenness, reportedly choked a snarling wolf with his hands. Some biologists recommend making a fist with your hand and shoving it down the wolf’s throat to prevent it from biting; if a wolf can’t breathe, it will probably decide that attacking you isn’t worth the effort. Climbing a tree could also compel a wolf to leave you alone, but never run away; doing so could trigger a wolf’s predatory instinct to chase you.
Unfortunately, none of these general rules about wolf attacks holds true if a wolf has rabies. Rabid wolves tend to attack ferociously, indiscriminately, and without provocation; the most obvious symptoms of rabies in wolves include foaming at the mouth and a total lack of fear. If you’re being attacked by a rabid wolf, your best bet is a shotgun and good aim.
Wolf attacks on humans are extremely rare. A government report [PDF] published in 2002 found there have been 49 well-documented cases of aggression toward humans by wolves in Alaska and Canada since 1942. More recent years have seen a couple of wolf-related deaths: In 2005, a man was mauled by four wolves in Saskatchewan, possibly after giving them food, and in 2010, a woman was killed by two or more wolves in Alaska while jogging.
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Explainer thanks Jess Edberg of the International Wolf Center in Ely, Minn.; Valerius Geist of the University of Calgary; Maggie Howell of the Wolf Conservation Center; and Dave Mech of the U.S. Geological Survey and University of Minnesota.
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