When wolves were being reintroduced to Yellowstone National Park, USA, during the mid-1990s, opponents often claimed that the wolves represented a major threat to human safety in the area. Fear of wolves, along with the threat that wolves pose to domestic livestock, is one of the primary reasons wolves have been wiped out of many regions of the Old and New Worlds. When European settlers arrived in North America, they found that they were entering a land that was inhabited by wolves, so thousands of wolves were slaughtered by the settlers in part because they genuinely feared for their lives. Wolves had already been wiped out from much of Europe, as most people believed that wolves did attack people. Indeed, during the Middle Ages many horrifying rumours of wolves killing humans spread across Europe. Although many of these rumours are likely exaggerated, people believed them.
However, one cannot dismiss all attacks as rumours. Wolves in Europe probably did attack people, although many attacks seem to have been committed by rabid wolves or feral wolf/dog hybrids (Mech, 1970). For example, during the 1760's in south-central France, over 60 people were confirmed to have been killed by wolves. Biologists today believe that those attacks were the work of feral wolf/dog hybrids, and not wolves (Savage, 1996). The animals involved were far bigger than normal European wolves, and were a strange reddish colour. The vast majority of other attacks seemed to have been committed by rabid wolves. Today, rabies is rather uncommon in the grey wolf, though infrequent attacks by rabid wolves on humans in parts of Asia and the Middle East still occur.
Recent attacks by wolves on humans in Europe and Asia have been documented as well. In 1996, several young children were killed by a single wolf in Uttar Pradesh, a province in India. The attacks likely occurred because both wild prey and domestic livestock were extremely scarce in the area and small children were allowed to roam unattended. These are the only documented, recent fatal attacks on humans by wolves. Non-fatal attacks by wolves on humans in Eurasia are also rare, and seem to be far less common than they were before the 1900s. Several factors may account for this sharp decline: Wolves are much less common than they were during the Middle Ages, rabies is less common, and the advent of guns has allowed humans to quickly destroy wolves that are unafraid of humans.
The situation in North American is quite different. In North America, no person has ever been killed by a healthy, wild wolf, and attacks are extremely rare. Most wild wolves avoid people, and even people who live in wolf country rarely actually see the animals. In fact, many wolf researchers who have approached wolf dens have found that they were able to do so without being approached by adult wolves.
However, wolf attacks are not unheard of in North America. In the past 25 years, five people have been bitten by wolves in Algonquin park in Ontario, Canada. Two of the more serious attacks happened during the 1990's. The first incident, which occurred in 1996, involved a wolf that bit an 11 year old boy and tried to pull him out of his sleeping bag. In 1998, a wolf grabbed an infant and tossed it before it was driven away. The same wolf had earlier tried to attack a four-year-old girl. In addition, in April, 2000, a six-year-old boy was bitten by a wolf at an Alaskan logging camp, and during the summer of 2000, a camper was bitten by a wolf on Vancouver Island.
All four of these attacks are believed to have been committed by habituated wolves, that is, wolves who had lost their fear of humans. The wolves involved in the Algonquin attacks had been fed and approached by people, and the wolf involved in the Vancouver Island attack had also been fed by people. Some wildlife biologists believe that the behaviour of the wolf involved in the attack on the Alaska boy was consistent with an animal that had been habituated to human food. Wild wolves typically fear people, but wolves who have learned that they can get food by raiding campsites or bothering people may lose their fear of them, and as a result, may begin to behave in an aggressive manner. Wolves who have been repeatedly approached by humans may also begin to lose their fear of them. So, while wolves are generally not dangerous to people, it is important for those who see wolves in the wild to not forget that wolves are no different from any other wild carnivore, and should therefore not be approached or fed.
This phenomenon is, or course, not limited to wolves. Any wild animal that has been fed or repeatedly approached by humans may lose fear of them and become dangerous. It is also important to keep these negative wolf-human encounters within a broader perspective. There are roughly 60 000 wolves in North America and the vast majority of them avoid human contact. Millions of people visit parks and wilderness areas each year that are inhabited by wolves and attacks remain extremely rare.