Dog bite expert & animal behavior specialist

Richard H. Polsky, PhD, CDBC
Los Angeles, California

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Fatal wolf attack on human in Alaska

Dog Bite Fatality AlaskaWolf attacks on humans are rare, and it is only been in recent times where indication that the shy, reserved nature of the wolf toward humans in the wilderness may be changing.

Indication of this comes forth from the March 12, 2010 fatality of a 32-year-old Candice Berner, a special education teacher from Pennsylvania who recently relocated to Alaska. Berner was mauled to death by a pack of wolves near the small fishing village of Chignik Lake on the Alaska peninsula in the southwest part of the state. This community of about 105 residents is about 475 miles southwest of Anchorage. The location of Chignik Lake on the peninsula is shown below.

Reports indicate that victim was jogging in the late afternoon with her iPod on a desolated roadway between the village and the airstrip, and was attacked by as many as four wolves, who then subsequently dragged the victim off the roadway, mauled her to death, and then partially consumed her.

The victim a physically fit person standing only 4’11”, put up a significant struggle before succumbing, thus suggesting more than one wolf was involved. She was discovered shortly after the attack by several snowmobile people who were led to her by a trail of blood. Wolf tracks were found in the proximity of her body.

The autopsy report concluded that her 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”.

A full-grown adult male wolf in Alaska weighs approximately 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.

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 chance she may have mistakenly come too close to these wolves, who may have been hungry, therefore triggering a predatory response in these animals. In short, it is likely that a combination of factors were present which allowed a rare incident like this to happen.

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 will be undertaken on these animals in an attempt to confirm their involvement.

      Below is the text of the statement issued by the Alaska State Troopers several days after the incident regarding the cause of death:

(CHIGNIK LAKE, Alaska) — 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.