When Wolves Attack

Sixteen-year-old Noah Graham was lying down during a late-summer camping trip when he felt jaws clamp down on the back of his head. He reached back and touched a Wolf’s face.

Would you know what to do if jumped by a wolf?     Photo: Holly Kuchera

The Attack (As told to Joe Spring):

I decided to go camping on short notice as an end-of-the-summer deal with five friends—my girlfriend, her sister and brother-in-law, and two male friends. We drove up by Cass Lake, Minnesota, to Camp Winnibigoshish.

We were hanging out until about three in the morning. My girlfriend Rachel wanted to sleep outside. As she got ready for bed, everybody else went into their tents. She picked a spot by her Jeep. She had a blanket on the ground and another on top of her. Once she was situated, I walked over and lay next to her.

I had sweatpants and a sweatshirt on. I had my back down, my elbows on the ground, and my hands on my hips—all of which allowed me to have my head up to look at Rachel. We were awake the whole night, talking.

Around 4:30 A.M., I was mid-sentence when I felt something clamp down on the back of my head. I could feel the teeth, but I couldn’t see or hear anything. Rachel was looking at my eyes as I was talking, so she actually saw the wolf bite down.

I reached for the back of my head. My hands went to wolf’s jaws. It’s not like there was any precision to what I was doing. It was kind of a mess. I struggled. I moved my hands around, from its jaws to the side of its jaws, near its cheeks. I put pressure on its head with my hands. Eventually I just held its head in place and jerked my head forward really hard. I didn’t pry its jaws open. I just put pressure on its head and then pulled my head forward.

After my head came out, I jumped up. It was maybe seven feet away from me, pacing back and forth, growling really loud. It was shaggy and pretty big. It looked like a coyote, but bigger.

My family is really big into hunting, so I’d seen wolves from our deer stand, but I never had fear of wolves. The other times I’ve seen them, they ran away from me. I have never seen any aggression. I had no idea this could even happen.

I thought the wolf was going to lunge back at me or Rachel. I started kicking and screaming at it. Rachel had had her head under the covers, but as I was kicking and screaming, she got up and ran to the jeep.

Rachel’s brother in law was in his tent. I yelled for him a couple of times. “Max! Max!”

After maybe five or ten seconds of yelling, the wolf turned and ran. It wasn’t a panicked run. It just kind of trotted into the brush. I don’t really know where it went after that. I was just focused on my head.

I could feel the blood dripping down the side of my face. I reached up with my bare hands. I was bleeding really bad, but there wasn’t really much pain. I don’t know why. Maybe adrenaline? Or maybe I just wasn’t able to focus on the pain because I was focusing on getting out of there? I quickly threw a blanket over my head and pressed down. Max ran out of his tent and helped me to the truck.

It took us a moment to clear the front seat. By that time, the blood had soaked the blanket, so we took it off. We grabbed a roll of paper towels and used them to bandage my head.

When I sat down in the truck there was this really sharp pain, and then throbbing.  I could feel each tear. I had a huge gash that was maybe four inches and then a bunch of puncture wounds. I could feel each individual thing and they all they had their own kind of pain, but the gash hurt the most.

I called my dad right away and told him I had been attacked. He told me, “Call 911.”

I called them next. They told me they’d send somebody out to see what was going on. I’ve never hurt that bad. I thought I was going to vomit all of the way into the ER. It was a 45-minute drive.

The paper towel soaked through a couple of times and I just kept putting layer after layer on. I knew I didn’t want blood all over the place. I had people telling me what to do. “Put pressure on it,” they said.  Everybody was a little shook up, but they handled it really well. “It’s going to be OK,” they said.

My dad met me at the ER. The bleeding had pretty much stopped. A nurse cleaned out my wound, but I had to wait probably an hour for the doctor. He came in and cleaned everything out real well, too. Once they cleaned my head, the bleeding started again. It wasn’t gushing, but it took probably three hours before the bleeding stopped. They put 17 staples in my head, gave me rabies shots, and bandaged up the area.

I’ve always told my friends, “You’re safer outside than you are in the city.” I just never dreamed something would attack me. My family is pretty outdoorsy and we camp a lot. I don’t fear that I will be attacked in my life again. It might be weird camping outside at night again, but I just have to work up to it.

Analysis:

Graham did the right thing by fighting off the wolf and then standing and yelling. “He needed to challenge the animal,” says Tom Provost, a regional manager for the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources. “Running away may have further triggered the predator’s natural reaction to attack.”

Two days after the incident, officials trapped and shot an 84-pound wolf nearby. The dead animal’s muscle tissue matched DNA from saliva taken from the blanket Graham wrapped around his head. The DNA showed a pure wolf, not a coyote-wolf hybrid. The animal tested negative for rabies and showed no signs of canine distemper virus. Officials dug more. A necropsy, the animal equivalent of an autopsy, revealed the left side of the wolf’s jaw was shorter than the right side. His left upper canine had never irrupted out of the gums, and his upper molars and lower molars didn’t line up. A healthy adult male wolf can exert enough pressure with its jaw to snap a moose’s femur in a string of bites. The wolf that attacked Noah Graham was a one-and-a-half-year-old male with a messed up jaw.

The wolf’s stomach included only fish spines and scales. Not far from Lake Winnibigoshish, there are resorts with fish cleaning stations where fish guts and scales remain on the round. There are still other areas on the shore where fish are cleaned, or where dead fish may wash up. Campers reported seeing the wolf walking near tents the weekend it attacked Graham. It’s quite possible the animal was scavenging around the lake for fish or around campsites for garbage.

Further examination of the skull showed more. Sometime in the past, the wolf had an injury to the face that damaged its upper jaw. His nasal cavity suffered an inflammation at some point, and, as a result was deformed and smaller than average. The injury to the upper jaw may be the reason that several teeth didn’t irrupt. There was also a large dental cyst. The left front side of the brain was different than the right front side. The animal’s nasal nerve, olfactory bulb, and frontal lobe—which helps control emotion and decision-making—had severely atrophied. He had remarkable brain lesions that were more accentuated on the left side of the brain than the right side.

“We can’t know with certainty why this wolf approached and bit the teen,” says Minnesota wildlife health program supervisor Michelle Carstensen. “But the necropsy results support the possibility that its facial deformity, dental abnormalities, and brain damage predisposed it to be less wary of people and human activities than what is normally observed in healthy wild wolves and also affected its ability to effectively capture wild prey.”

Context:

Almost everything about a wolf evolved to run and hunt, and, at times, to decide whether to do one or the other. The animals often prey on ungulates, teaming up in packs of two or more to run down deer, elk, moose, and bison. They’ll also kill other predators—including cougars, black bears, and polar bear cubs—though they rarely dine on the meat. At times, they scavenge. In Minnesota, they may consume anything from chokecherries to cows, but they mostly hunt deer, which they track with an exquisite sense of smell. They usually go for the neck, slice open the abdomen with their canines, and then dine on everything from the entrails to bone marrow. It is not unusual for wolves to cover 25 to 30 miles in a day, and hundreds of miles of territory in a month, looking for food. State officials have witnessed the animals sprinting at speeds up to 35 mph. When they’re not pursuing prey, they may be running from perceived threats, which might include anything from the sound of an avalanche to the sound of a Chevy Avalanche.

It’s not an easy thing to count a population of wolves. Since they often avoid people and the scent of people, capturing them is difficult. They often live in dense forests and run over long distances, so aerial surveys have their limits. Their tracks often overlap and disappear, so counting signs is a monumental and sometimes misleading task. Still, officials in Minnesota did their best last winter. In November, they asked for wolf observation data from 11 national, state, and private organizations whose field employees might see wolves or signs of wolves. By the end of winter, they had received 2,898 wolf observations.

The majority of those observations—61 percent—were tracks. The next biggest chunk of data included howls, kills, dead wolves, and scat. Less than ten percent of the observations were of living wolves. Officials took all those observations and mapped them out to figure out the wolf’s range. They combined the observations with other considerations—such as habitat type and pack size—and came up with an estimated population of 2,211 wolves. Though the degree of error predicts the number of wolves could be anywhere between 1652 and 2640 animals, the current population estimate is much higher than the 750 estimated gray wolves living in Minnesota in the 1960s. It’s also a lot lower than the 2921 wolves estimated for the winter of 2007. The drop comes from a number of factors: the state instituted a 2012 hunt that claimed 413 animals, nearly 300 wolves were killed in response to depredations on livestock in the nine months leading up to the winter wolf survey, the state expanded hunting of “over-goaldeer populations in many areas, a mild winter made it harder for wolves to hunt the deer that were left after that hunt, and the Minnesota moose population declined.

Any skeptical reader might think that the number of animals hunted for sport and killed in response to taking livestock almost matches the decline of the last five years. They wouldn’t be wrong. Any skeptical scientist might point out that because the confidence intervals of the 2007 and 2013 surveys overlap, it’s possible that there has been no change in the numbers between the two surveys. They wouldn’t be wrong either. Estimating the population size of wolves is a complex thing.

It’s much easier to estimate and calculate the numbers of wild wolves that have attacked people in Minnesota. The state offers an interesting study area because it is the only place in the continental United States, aside from an island in Michigan, where the animals were not wiped out in the mid-1900s. The Minnesota DNR says this is the only documented incident in state history.

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