Wednesday, July 12, 2006

Alaska Woman recovering after wolf attack

By TIM MOWRY - Fairbanks Daily News-Miner Staff Writer

Wednesday, July 12, 2006 - An Anchorage woman walking along the Dalton Highway was chased down and bitten twice by a wolf Friday morning in what wildlife officials are calling a "very rare," but not unprecedented, attack.

"I looked up and I saw (the wolf) just across the road," said Becky Wanamaker, a 25-year-old school teacher. "It came at me and I panicked and ran, which I probably shouldn't have done."

The long-legged gray and white wolf, only about 20 yards away, chased her down.

"It sunk its teeth into the back of one of my legs and I kind of stumbled, but I kept running toward the outhouse," she said, referring to one of two outhouses located at the pullout. "I was pretty scared and I remember thinking, 'Don't fall. If you're down on the ground, you're toast.'"

The wolf bit her a second time, this time in the back of the left leg.

"I knew the outhouse was there," said Wanamaker, who yelled for help both times she was bitten. "I just wanted to be inside something. I just knew if he knocked me down, I was done for."

Reaching the outhouse, Wanamaker whipped open the door and locked herself in. Then she checked her wounds. There was an inch-long gash on the inside of her right thigh and three punctures on the back of her right thigh. Her left leg had two punctures, one behind her knee and another on the outside of the knee.

"Once I got into the outhouse and saw the wounds weren't bleeding profusely, I was able to calm down," said Wanamaker. "It hurt but it wasn't anything excruciating I just praised God that I was OK."

Wanamaker knew there were some people camping near the other outhouse a short distance away. Looking out and not seeing the wolf anywhere, she decided to try and reach it.

"I made it into the second outhouse and screamed to wake up the people camping," she said. "I told them I got bit by a wolf."

The campers helped Wanamaker clean and bandage her wounds before driving her back to the campground where her four friends were camped.

"They didn't believe me at first," said Wanamaker, who had camped with her friends at the Arctic Circle after driving north to see the Arctic Ocean. "I got out of the car and said, 'Hey, I got bit by a wolf and we've got to leave.' They all started laughing."

Judging from her description of the animal, state wildlife biologist Mark McNay has little doubt it was a wolf that attacked Wanamaker.

"She said it was long legged and very lean," said McNay, who studies wolves for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game in Fairbanks. "That's the typical thing you see when you see a wolf in the summer. It's all legs and very thin."

The wounds on Wanamaker's thighs are also consistent with the size of an adult wolf, McNay said, noting that Wanamaker is 5-feet-7-inches tall.

Attacks by wild, healthy wolves on humans are unusual but not unprecedented, according to McNay, who spent two years researching wolf attacks in North America and came up with 13 such attacks in the past 30 years through the year 2000. Eleven of those attacks involved "habituated" or "food-conditioned" wolves that had lost their fear of people while only two were by non-habituated wolves, he said.

"They're rare, but they're not unheard of," McNay said of wolf attacks on humans.

There have been more attacks in the past six years, McNay said. A man was killed by a wolf while hiking in Saskatchewan in 2005 and a jogger was attacked and bitten severely in 2004, also in Saskatchewan.

In Alaska, there have been a handful of wolf attacks on humans, McNay said. The most recent was six years ago in a Southeast logging camp in Icy Bay when a habituated wolf attacked a 6-year-old boy who was playing in the woods and attempted to flee when he saw the wolf. The boy fell as he was running and the wolf attacked, biting him several times and attempting to drag him away before it was shot, McNay said.

Other incidents in Alaska include a wolf that charged a hunting guide on the Alaska Peninsula in 1997 and ran away after the guide hit the wolf with his rifle; a wolf that ran toward a boy on the Salcha River in 1996 and was shot by the boy's father; three instances--one in 1974 and two in 1975--in which pipeline workers's hands were bitten while trying to feed wolves; and in 1969 a man shot and killed a wolf that had bitten him at a remote camp at Wien Lake, about 100 miles west of Fairbanks.

None of the wolves in the above incidents were rabid and McNay doesn't suspect the wolf that attacked Wanamaker was, either. More likely he suspects it was somehow habituated and has lost its normal wariness of people. Based on its behavior and the fact it was alone, McNay speculated it was a young wolf, probably a yearling.

"Those are the kinds of wolves that are typically by themselves and often show up at campgrounds," he said. "They don't have a whole lot of experience with people."

Though the wolf bit Wanamaker, it didn't act overly aggressive, said McNay. "It would have had the capability to bring her down to the ground and hold her there had it wanted to," he said.

Once a wolf becomes habituated to humans "it doesn't have any natural fear or flee response," said McNay. At that point, if a human runs from a habituated wolf it may trigger a wolf-like response, he said.

In retrospect, Wanamaker realizes running wasn't a good idea and she probably shouldn't have been walking along the road alone, she said. That said, coming face-to-face with a wolf caught her by surprise, said Wanamaker, who moved to Alaska from Portland, Ore., a little over a year ago.

"I know exactly what to do when I see a bear or a moose," she said. "Nobody tells you what to do when you see a wolf. It was a flight-or-fight experience."

When it comes to wolves, it's probably better to fight than flee, said McNay. Running from any predator, whether it's a bear or wolf, is futile because they're faster than humans, he said. But he noted that Wanamaker's situation was unique.

"She had a refuge close at hand," he said, referring to the outhouses.

The best thing to do if you encounter a wolf is to stop and slowly distance yourself from it while facing the wolf, he said. If the wolf continues approaching, throw sticks, rocks or anything you can find at the wolf while yelling at it, McNay said.

If a wolf isn't sure something is a prey item, it will demonstrate some inhibition to act aggressively, McNay said.

"If they think they're going to get the crap beat out of them they're not going to run up and bite someone," he said.

Whether or not the wolf that bit Wanamaker was habituated is unknown. There had been no previous reports of the wolf in the area, though it could have been lurking around the Arctic Circle pullout without being seen, McNay said.

"We don't know what its level of exposure is (to people)," he said.

As for Wanamaker, doctors at Fairbanks Memorial Hospital put one stitch in the gash on her thigh and the puncture wounds are now black-and-blue blotches on her legs. She will undergo a series of five rabies shots in the arm to ensure she isn't infected by rabies. She received her first shot on Friday at the hospital after security personnel at Pump Station 6, where she stopped to get her wounds checked by a medic, called to alert the hospital she was on the way. The vaccine had to be flown from Anchorage to Fairbanks, Wanamaker said.

By the time she reached the hospital five hours after the incident, Wanamaker was able to laugh about the ordeal. It turned out to be a true Alaska roadtrip, she said.

"I told the nurse, 'We jumped in the Arctic Ocean yesterday and I got bit by a wolf today,'" said Wanamaker, who teaches deaf children for the Anchorage School District.

As for the wolf, it hasn't been seen since the attack. Alaska State Troopers asked Alyeska security guards to keep an eye out for the wolf, said Lt. Gary Folger with the Alaska Bureau of Wildlife Enforcement in Fairbanks. If they see it, they've been instructed to shoot it, he said.

"If we see the wolf we would put it down," said Folger. "It has a documented history of a human attack."

  • Fairbanks Daily News-Miner
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