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Can you live safely among wolves?

For years, Shaun Ellis has lived a "Jungle Book" kind of life in England's Combe Martin Wildlife and Dinosaur Park. Nicknamed the "man among wolves," Ellis is a self-taught wolf expert who has spent the majority of his time with a pack of wolves that he helped raise from pup stage since 2004 [source: Brown].

He eats alongside his wolf brethren, tearing organs and meat from the bellies of dead game animals brought into the habitat (his food has been flashed cooked and placed in protective plastic bags). If a wolf displays dominance over him, Ellis can curl his lips into a fearsome, defensive snarl that makes you wonder whether the man doesn't have a bit of lobo running through his blood. Even his howls are pitch-perfect.

Another wolf expert, Tanja Askani from the Czech Republic, lived with a pack of wolves for eight years in Germany's Lüneburger Heide Wildlife Preserve. Beginning with a single orphaned pup, Askani reared and found a mate for the wolf, fostering the creation of the preserve's first pack.

Wolves brought naturalist and photographer Jim Dutcher closer to his wife, animal expert and sound technician Jamie Dutcher. Stars of the Discovery Channel documentary "Living with Wolves," the Dutchers spent six years with a wolf pack in an enclosed wilderness habitat within Idaho's Sawtooth Mountains. While they didn't vie for a position within the pack, the Dutchers gained the wolves' trust. At one point, the alpha female allowed Jamie to enter the wolf den after she gave birth to pups -- behavior never previously attempted by humans since female wolves keep the birthing process private.

One essential element that links these human-wolf experiences is the packs' enclosed settings. While the controlled environments don't completely alter the wolf hierarchies and interactions, it likely tempers their aggression since they don't need to hunt for food or worry about prey scarcity [source: Brown]. Ellis, for instance, has sustained little more than a few cuts and bite marks from living what some consider a savage lifestyle. If he were to encounter the same pack in the wild, its members might not treat him as kindly.

So how safe would people be with wolves in the wild? Learn more about the relationship between wolves and people on the next page.

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Adorable? Yes. Your new best friends? Not quite.

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Safe Human-wolf Contact

Although wolves have plenty of haters, something about them attracts human interest. After all, the reintroduction of wolves into Yellowstone National Park drummed up an estimated $19 million in related tourist income [source: Bangs]. The intentional repopulation of gray wolves in Yellowstone and central Idaho began in the mid 1990s. Since then, the lobos have rebounded remarkably well.

This also means that wolves are expanding their territory, begging the question of whether potential human-wolf contact will cause problems. After all, wolf predation on livestock and a popular fear of the animal fueled their initial extermination during the first half of the 20th century in the United States. Is living in proximity to wolves inherently dangerous?

Statistically, the answer is no. In 60 years, only three, nonfatal wolf attacks occurred in the lower 48 states, all in Minnesota [source: McNay]. Wolves naturally shy away from people, preferring to stick to wild, hoofed prey. In fact, there's no substantiated evidence of a wolf ever killing a human in North America, even though tens of thousands inhabit different areas across the continent [source: Busch]. Will wolves attack cows or sheep or even your yappy pet dogs? Yes. But it's a pretty safe bet that a healthy, nonrabid wolf won't come after you.

­Wolf biologists have expressed concern about one factor that sometimes goes along with wolves and humans sharing the same space: habituation. If people purposely leave food out in their yards to feed some wild wolves or don't properly dispose of garbage during times when prey is scarce, they invite trouble. As a wolf grows comfortable with being around humans and getting scrap rewards, the more confident it'll become in approaching us [source: International Wolf Center]. Remember that wolves are wild creatures and don't share the same behavior as their domesticated descendents -- even their adorable puppies.

If you encounter a wolf, the International Wolf Center recommends these actions:

  • Don't approach closer than 300 feet (91 meters).
  • Wave your arms and make noise to show your dominance.
  • Don't turn your back to it.

You can also contact the Department of Natural Resources in your state or the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for further instructions.

Learn more about wolves and their interactions with people by visiting the links on the next page.

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Sources

  • Bangs, Ed. "Bringing Wolves Home." PBS Nova. Updated November 2000. (July 17, 2008)http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/nova/wolves/bangs.html
  • Brown, Bob. "A Man Among Wolves." ABC News. April 10, 2007. (July 17, 2008)http://abcnews.go.com/print?id=3015683
  • Busch, Robert A. "The Wolf Almanac: A Celebration of Wolves and Their World." Globe Pequot. 2007. (July 14, 2008)http://books.google.com/books?id=iUVJsGY9Q-8C
  • Dutcher, Jaime. "Living with Wolves." The Mountaineers Books. 2005. (July 17, 2008)http://books.google.com/books?id=m2wNmoTnbDkC
  • "Living with Wolves: Tips for avoiding conflict." International Wolf Center. March 2002. (July 17, 2008)http://www.wolf.org/wolves/learn/basic/wolves_humans/pdf/wh_avoiding_conflict.pdf
  • McNay, Mark E. "A Case History of Wolf-Human Encounters in Alaska and Canada." Alaska Department of Fish and Game. 2002. (July 17, 2008)http://www.wildlife.alaska.gov/pubs/techpubs/research_pdfs/techb13_full.pdf
  • "Too close for comfort: The problem of habituated wolves." International Wolf Center. September 2003. (July 17, 2008)http://www.wolf.org/wolves/learn/basic/wolves_humans/pdf/wh_close_for_comfort.pdf
  • Whitt, Chris. "Wolves: Life in the Pack." Sterling Publishing Company, Inc. 2003. (July 16, 2008)http://books.google.com/books?id=x4DLA4TE_rAC
  • Wilson, Matthew A. "Public Attitudes Toward Wolves in Wisconsin." Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources. 1997. (July 17, 2008)http://dnr.wi.gov/ORG/LAND/er/publications/wolfplan/appendix/appendix_h.htm