Expert Opinion: Wolf Conservationist vs. 'The Grey'

on February 06, 2012 by Suzanne Stone, as told to Boxoffice

greyexpertopinion.pngI am the Wolf Conservation Coordinator for Defenders of Wildlife. For the last 23 years, I've been working to bring wolves back to Idaho, Yellowstone National Park, and also now the Pacific Northwest. I'm one of the members of the Canadian Wolf Reintroduction team. I went to Canada and helped capture wolves there to bring them back and help restore them in places like Idaho, which has the largest contiguous wilderness area of the lower 48 states. There's only a handful of us who do this, so we all know each other.

Wolves are a native species and they're very important ecologically. They help strengthen biodiversity, strengthen the ecosystem overall. They're a component that's been missing for a while and as a result there's been a pretty negative impact on our western ecosystem. In the last 15 years, my work has also focused on working with ranchers to help them to adapt methods that protect their livestock from predation by wolves or bears or other native carnivores so that wildlife and people can coexist, because when ever wolves get into trouble over livestock, it's the wolves who end up getting killed.

People haven't lived with wolves here for generations. Wolves were eradicated from the western half of the United States at the turn of the last century. In the 1930s, they were pretty much unheard of. Instead of growing up with wolves, they've grown up with stories like Little Red Riding Hood and the Three Little Pigs, Peter and the Wolfthey don't know how to discern fiction from fact. Their knowledge comes from fairy tales, mythology, story-telling that very often portrays wolves in a negative light. That's what we're here to help with.

When I first heard that a movie was coming out about wolves attacking humans, my first thought was, "Oh nonot another one!" I didn't want to see it, but I knew I was going to need to see it just to be aware of what kinds of new myths we might encounter. And with this movie, there were a lot of myths that I'm sure we're going to hear from classrooms to the state legislature. People tend to believe a lot of what they hear. And I love Liam Neeson myself, and he does sound convincing. In my theater, I stayed and talked with people after the movie and that was enlightening just to find out what their thoughts were. Two of them actually thought that the information presented in The Grey was factualthey were like, "Wow! We didn't know this about wolves!" Really? Oh no. Great.

First, this portrayal that wolves are bold and they actively hunt humans is wrong. Wolves tend to be very shy of people. There's only been two cases in the last century of North American history of wolves attacking people. It's very, very rare for wolves to threaten people. That doesn't mean that they can'tthey certainly have the ability to prey on people-but they typically don't. Probably because humans have killed so many hundreds of thousands of wolves that over time, the ones that survive have become genetically coded to become afraid of people. The biggest threat to the wolves is people-their number one cause of mortality is humans. So they have every reason to be afraid of us.

To give you a sense of how easy it is for you to scare them, one of our projects is going out to herders and teaching them how to frighten wolves away from livestock. We do it all the time. I've been able to scare a wolf away from livestock by beating a wooden stick on a pot. They're scared of sound, they're scared of lightflashlights are really effective. We have a shooting pistol that's used for horse races, kind of like a cap gun, and when you set that off, that sends them running. Use an air horn and they scram. They're very easy to intimidate.

Humans try to equate how animals act on the landscape with how we would behave and what challenges we would have in that situation. Like, the film seems to imply that because the ground was so barren and snowy, the wolves might first attacked because they were hungry. Actually, winter is the best time for wolves. It's the easiest time for them to hunt their prey and the least likely time for them to be starving.

The biggest premise of the movie is that the wolves' den might be close-by. That was the movie's first fatal flaw, to think that wolves would have a den in the winter. Wolves never den during the wintertime. Ever. The only wolves that actually den are the alpha females, and she only dens when she has pups. And pups are only born in April. They're only ever in the den site until the pups are old enough to see and play, and then they move them to what's called a rendezvous site where the whole pack takes care of the pups while they're growing up.

And this whole idea that wolves have a kill radius of 30 miles? That sounds like something someone read somewhere and then extrapolated to the movie. Plus, wolves are scavengers. They don't kill everything they eatthey don't even kill a lot of what they eat. During the wintertime, there's a lot of dead elk and deer and moose, which is why it's so easy for them to survive the weather. Which means that with all those carcasses on the ground, they would have just scavenged from those bodies. They wouldn't have sought out anything aliveit'd be much easier to feed off the frozen meat then go after people who were fighting back. It just doesn't make any sense.

Regardless, the wolves probably wouldn't have even come close to the crash. The sound of a plane crashing would have sent them running 50 miles in the other direction, not to mention the smoke-they're extremely afraid of fire. All wildlife is. So a wolf leaping over fire? Not a chance. You probably couldn't even get a trained wolf to do that, let alone one that's wild.

Plus this whole idea about retribution? That wolves are the only animal that kills for revenge? Hello-that's people. There's no animals that do that, let alone wolves which are afraid of people to begin with. This movie was just confusing human behavior for wolf behavior. It seemed like they were trying to imply that it was retribution for the first wolf that Liam Neeson shotwell, the first one that he roasted, but also the one that he shot as a sniper in the beginning. Which was totally bogus to begin with because wolves are not going to run up to people who are working with loud hammers and equipment, there's no way that would have happened. The movie seemed to imply that he was now in the wolves' territory, as though he could get on a plane, fall asleep, crash, and the same pack would be there when he got down. I didn't get that.

But the part with them roasting that wolf, it looked very real. It would be very disturbing to find out that that was a real wolf and not just some Hollywood make-up. It's like roasting a dogdisgusting. I think that was the most disturbing part of the film. When they throw the head into the woods and the wolves start to howl, wolves do mourn the loss of their pack members. They're bondeda pack is a family and it's very much like a human family. Sometimes they mourn for days. I know a wolf in a zoo setting who lost her mate and she howled pretty much non-stop for a month.

Oh, and you can't tell from the howl if a wolf is an alpha. That was pretty silly. The most timid wolf in the wolf pack is the omegathe least likely to jump across a fire. An alpha wouldn't have sent the omega to attack. It's not usually the alpha male who does the work in the pack, anyway. And typically, it's the female who hunts for the pack, not the male. Females are faster. They almost couldn't have gotten it more wrong. Plus, alpha doesn't mean the strongest maleit means the parents of the pack, who are also the leaders. The rest of the members are their offspring. And there's an alpha male and an alpha female. It's not that the other wolves don't challenge the alpha, but it's like challenging your parents. If an alpha gets killed or dies of natural causes, the order of the pack can get changed, but usually it's stable, even though it's not guaranteed for life.

And the humans broke every rule of survival. The movie was pretty much everything not to do if you're trying to survive a plane crash in the wilderness. You don't leave your shelter, water, food, radio beacon. Leave your potential of being rescued to go walk through a blizzard? Really? Rescuers would have no idea which way they went and they had no provisions. And then they make all these decisions like tying clothes together and jumping across a chasm? It felt like one of those surrealistic dreams where you're always making the wrong decision. I imagine that as mad as I felt about the wolves in this film, the people that do rescue work were also just really offended. It was so far-fetched it reminded me of Snakes on a Plane.

They head for the forest, and it is true that wolves don't usually kill in the trees, even though they did here. They prefer the open areas, which is different from bears and mountain lions who use the trees a lot because they hunt using surprise. Instead, for the most part wolves test their prey, so they'll hunt deer and elk in the open, which is why we're seeing deer and elk disperse and head into the trees.

Did The Grey get anything right? Well, the wolves had pretty eyes, which they do, and beautiful coats. The way they were moving didn't look rightyou could definitely tell there was a human in a wolf costume during parts of the movie. They had clips of wolves running that were definitely wolves. And the scenery was pretty.

My job has gotten harder since the two recent fatal wolf attacks. In both situations, the wolves were already pretty habituated to people. They'd lost their fear of humans and one of them in particular had been fed by people, which is a big problem. Any animal like thatlions, bearsyou don't want to get them too accustomed to people because they become a nuisance. I work so closely with wolves, but at the same time I have to keep my distance-which is true of pretty much all wildlife. There's a bumpersticker that says, "A fed bear is a dead bear," which is true because they become so used to relying on humans for food that they become a nuisance and then they get killed.

I've always loved wolves. In college, I interned for the Central Idaho Wolf RecoveryIdaho had pretty much destroyed its wolf population by then, but we were still getting dispersers from Canada and Montana-and was tracking wolves in the hopes that we'd find enough of them that we'd be able to restore their number. I did a lot of monitoring traps and howling surveys. My first time to go out howling, the head of the wolf recovery team taught me how to howl. We were out in central Idaho at this place called Warm Lake sitting under the trees howling and we had rifle bullets zinging over the top of our heads. I'm a girl sitting in the woods howling like a wolf and people are shooting at me. We jumped in the truck and headed back down the road and my teacher looked at me and said, "I think I taught you how to howl too well." Humans are the most dangerous creature in the woodsthere's no question about that. To be shooting blindly into the woods that gives you a sense of what wolves are facing.

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