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Thursday, March 6, 2014
Wolves at the door?
Fear of wolves is roiling Germany once again

German police reached the accident to find what looked like a scene from a horror movie: Seven horses had been hit by two speeding cars. The drivers had been badly injured. Investigators found pieces of auto wreckage and horseflesh scattered around the site. But the carnage is not the reason the December car wreck has remained national news. Instead, what's made the accident the talk of Germany is its alleged cause: wolves, which reportedly spooked the horses into the paths of the cars.

It's difficult to convey the fear that wolves generate in this country. The predator has played a role in many a German fairy tale, and for about 150 years wolves had been considered extinct in Germany, hunted down and disposed of. Now wolves have made a comeback, growing over the last 20 years to a stable population of 35 packs, about 150 wolves in all. That's set off a furor. Critics maintain that Germany is too densely populated for a large carnivore to be allowed to roam freely. Scientists maintain that they are simply signs of an ecosystem in need of a predator.

The December accident shows how far apart the two camps are. The Hunters Association of Saxony says wolves caused the horses to flee their pen and head onto the road. Others have strong doubts, noting that no evidence of a wolf presence was found at the scene. But fear of wolves remains. One need look no further than Grimm Brothers' tales such as "Little Red Cap" — the Grimm version of "Little Red Riding Hood" — to understand why.

How seriously the Germans took the wolf threat was evident about the time those stories were published. Wolf hunts sometimes featured thousands of participants. Each time a region cleansed itself of the lupine threat, hunters erected a "Wolfstein," or tombstone, in the field where the last one was killed and wrote on it who killed the animal and when. Wolves had been considered extinct in the country since before 1871.

Hermann Ansorge studies wolves as the head zoologist at Goerlitz Senckenberg Natural History Museum. Sadly, he said, the wolves he studies aren't nearly as dramatic as those creating public fear. For instance, his office studies wolf droppings to learn what the creatures are eating. The results: Fifty-two percent of their diet is tiny roe deer, 25 percent the larger red deer and 16 percent is wild pig. Sheep, cattle, goats and house pets combined make up less than 1 percent of the diet. "There is no human in the diet," he said, smiling, then adding, seriously, "None."

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