For those of my readers who don't know, I work as a volunteer at Wolf Haven International, a non-profit organization that works for wolf conservation and operates a sanctuary for wolves from captive situations. Mostly, I work as a tour guide, and that involves providing a fair amount of information on wolf ecology and behavior to our visitors. Perhaps what I don't fully appreciate is that the people I get on the tours are people who want to learn about wolves, and that there are many more people out there who harbor ideas about wolves which have zero basis in reality.
One of those people is Congressman Steven Pearce (R-NM 2nd). This past weekend, my wife showed me a column from the Seattle Times concerning wranglings in the House over the Interior Appropriations Bill for this year, during which Norman Dicks (D-Wa 6th) crossed swords with Pearce over funding for the US Fish and Wildlife Service's Mexican Gray Wolf Recovery Program, which Pearce wants to terminate. Here's the relevant passage:
To make his case, [Pearce] flashed a picture of a dead horse. The prized possession of an 8-year-old girl named Stacy, the horse was killed by wolves.
Pearce denounced the "feel-good feeling" among wolf supporters, saying he felt trapped in his house by wolves.
He raised the specter of wolf-borne rabies and told people to remember what happened to Old Yeller.
"The most provocative sound to a wolf is a crying baby or a laughing baby," Pearce said. Then he warned that wolves would snatch babies from their cradles.
"Their blood will be on your hands, my friend," Pearce said.
Dicks jumped. He demanded that Pearce retract his words or be reprimanded by the House speaker.
Pearce withdrew his statement, and his amendment failed 172-258.
Italics mine. Pearce deserved to get slapped, though less so, in my opinion, because of any offense caused to Congressman Dicks, and more because he was presenting fairy tales as fact to the House. First, let me deal with "the specter of wolf-borne rabies." It is important to remember that Old Yeller is, first, a work of fiction and, second, is set in 1869, prior to the development of vaccines and post-exposure treatments. Programs to reduce the incidence of the disease have been so effective that, during the 20th century, there were at most five documented attacks in North America on humans by wild wolves who were infected with rabies, of which two resulted in the victim dying (in both cases, the victims died of rabies, not from the wounds inflicted during the attack). All but one of these (including both fatal cases) took place in extremely remote areas, such as northern Alaska and Ellesmere Island, Nunavut. Attacks by wild wolves on dogs are more frequent, but with rabies vaccination for dogs now not only being available, but mandatory in all fifty states, for a dog to suffer Old Yeller's fate would almost certainly require criminal negligence on the part of its owner by not having it vaccinated (as an estimated 50% of household dogs are not).
Second, the notion that wolves consider human infants to be some sort of delicacy and will "snatch babies from their cradles" is simply incredible. Pearce might as well be claiming that wolves will eat old ladies, dress in their clothes, and hide in their beds waiting for incautious grandchildren to visit. Unprovoked, predatory attacks by wolves are only slightly more common in North America than attacks by rabid ones. During the 20th century, 16 people fell victim to unprovoked attacks by wild wolves, none of them fatally. Only one of these, a 19 month-old, could fairly be described as a baby, who was not in its cradle, but seated on the ground 6 meters from its parents at a picnic area in the Algonquin Provincial Park in Ontario. There exists one documented case of a human being killed by wolves in an unprovoked attack in North America in over 100 years: Kenton Carnegie, a 22 year-old Canadian mining engineering student, who was killed in November 2005 in northern Alberta, near a uranium mining camp where the miners dumped their trash in an open pit close to the camp. The association by wolves of humans with food is the primary factor in causing predatory attacks.
Now compare these numbers to those inflicted by dogs. Every year, domestic dogs attack about a million people in the United States alone, of which 60 to 70% are children; some 16-18 people die annually as a result. In other words, dogs kill about as many people every year as wolves attack (not necessarily kill) in a century. Dogs are also the primary vector in transmitting rabies to humans; this in spite of the fact that the only thing preventing dogs from being vaccinated is the negligence of their owners. I'm not interested in hearing excuses: if you can't afford to get your dog vaccinated, you can't afford to own a dog, period. In short, dogs present a larger threat to humans than wolves do by several orders of magnitude. (Source for the aforegoing is the exhaustive study A fear of wolves: A review of wolfs [sic] attacks on humans by the Norwegian Institute for Nature Research.)
Where predation on livestock is concerned, we see a similar story: in the United States in 2005, wolves killed 4,400 head of cattle (~2.3% of predator-caused deaths); dogs killed 21,900 (~11.5%), five times as many. Even then, predator-caused deaths constituted 0.18% of the total production (source: USDA National Agricultural Statistics Service, compiled by Sinapu, via AGRO).
The Mexican Gray recovery program is, contrary to Congressman Pearce's assertions, not a failure. It may yet become so, but if it does, it will not be because of the rapaciousness of the wolves, but because of the ignorance and stupidity of people like Pearce, who place more stock in fairy tales than in scientific research.