Wolf attacks on humans are rare. However, there is indication that the shy, reserved nature of the wolf toward humans in the wilderness may be changing. From my perspective in animal behavior, evidence to support this suspicion comes from a tragic incident in which a pack of wolves killed a human in March 2010.
Description of the fatal wolf attack
Specifically, 32-year-old special education teacher Candice Berner, was mauled to death, most likely by a pack of wolves. The incident happened near the small fishing village of Chignik Lake on the Alaska peninsula in the southwest part of the state. Chignik Lake has a population of about 105 residents and is located 475 miles southwest of Anchorage.
Ms. Berner was jogging in the late afternoon with her iPod on a desolated roadway between the village and the local airstrip. She may have been attacked by as many as four wolves. The wolves dragged Ms. Berner off the roadway, mauled her to death, and then consumed flesh from her body.
Burner physically fit but standing only 4’11” likely put up a significant struggle before succumbing. This suggests that more than one wolf was involved. She was discovered shortly after the attack by several snowmobiles who found her by following her trail of blood. Wolf tracks were also found in the proximity of her body.
A full-grown adult male wolf in Alaska weighs about 85 to 115 pounds but in some cases individuals may reach 145 pounds, according to the Department of Fish and Game. Females average 5 to 10 pounds lighter than males and rarely weigh more than 110 pounds. Alaskan wolves are frequently bred with domestic dogs producing wolf-hybrid progeny.
Increasing human-wolf encounters
The autopsy report concluded that Burner’s death was the result of animal attack, with bite injuries to the victim’s neck, but the report falls short of specifying the kind of animal involved. Most experts believe that a pack of 2 to 4 wolves undoubtedly inflicted the fatal injuries, however.
The only other known previous fatal wolf attack in North America over the last 100 years occurred in 2005, when a young student, hiking alone, was attacked and partially eaten by a pack of wolves in northern Saskatchewan.
Mark McNay, a retired Alaskan wildlife biologist is quoted in one news report that “What the research shows is that in the last 10 or 20 years, as wolves have kind of re-colonized areas where they were extirpated around the turn of the 20th century, and as people have also developed more habits of going out into national parks and wilderness areas, we’ve had more aggressive encounters”.
Animal behavior opinion
The victim was a relatively recent transplant from Pennsylvania and may not have fully recognized the potential dangers lurking in the wilderness. The victim probably had the misfortune of being in the wrong place at the wrong time and doing the wrong thing. She was small, she was alone (hence, more vulnerable) she was jogging (hence, a small moving prey-like object), and by happenstance she encountered the wolves, who may have been hunting. Her movements as a jogger likely triggered a predatory reaction in the wolves. In short, it is likely that a combination of factors were present which allowed a rare incident like this to happen.
Post attack investigation
Two wolves suspected to be involved were located in a nearby drainage area about 5 days after the incident. They were killed by gunshot from the air, and bite mark impressions and DNA analysis was undertaken in an attempt to confirm their involvement. Subsequently, the Alaska State troopers issued the following statement: “Investigation has determined that Candice Berner’s death was non-criminal in nature. An autopsy conducted today confirmed Ms. Berner died from injuries sustained in an animal attack. According to the State Medical Examiner, the manner of death is “accidental” and the cause of death is “multiple injuries due to animal mauling”. After conferring with state biologists and the community of Chignik Lake, it has been concluded that the animals most likely responsible for the attack are wolves. The Alaska State Troopers’ (AST) death investigation regarding this incident is closed.”
Richard Polsky, Ph.D. provides expert witness services for attorneys in Alaska. He occasionally post stories about newsworthy dog bite events in Alaska elsewhere on this website.