Although wolf attacks do occur, their frequency varies with geographical location and historical period. Gray wolf attacks are rare because wolves are often subsequently killed, or even extirpated in reaction by human beings. As a result, wolves today tend to live mostly far from people or have developed the tendency and ability to avoid them. The country with the most extensive historical records is France, where nearly 7,600 fatal attacks were documented from 1200 to 1920. In modern times, they occur most often in India and neighboring countries. There are few historical records or modern cases of wolf attacks in North America. In the half-century up to 2002, there were eight fatal attacks in Europe and Russia, three in North America, and more than 200 in south Asia. Experts categorize wolf attacks into various types, including rabies-infected, predatory, agonistic, and defensive.
The gray wolf is the largest wild member of the canid family, with males averaging 43–45 kg (95–99 lb), and females 36–38.5 kg (79–85 lb). It is the most specialized member of its genus in the direction of carnivory and hunting large game. Although they primarily target ungulates, wolves are at times versatile in their diet; for example, those in the Mediterranean region largely subsist on garbage and domestic animals. They have powerful jaws and teeth and powerful bodies capable of great endurance, and often run in large packs. Nevertheless, they tend to fear and avoid human beings, especially in North America. Wolves vary in temperament and their reaction to humans. Those with little prior experience with humans, and those positively conditioned through feeding, may lack fear. Wolves living in open areas, for example the North American Great Plains, historically showed little fear before the advent of firearms in the 19th Century, and would follow human hunters to feed on their kills, particularly bison. In contrast, forest-dwelling wolves in North America were noted for shyness. Wolf biologist L. David Mech hypothesized in 1998 that wolves generally avoid humans because of fear instilled by hunting. Mech also noted that humans' upright posture is unlike wolves' other prey, and similar to some postures of bears, which wolves usually avoid. Mech speculated that attacks are preceded by habituation to humans, while a successful outcome for the wolf may lead to repeated behavior, as documented especially in India.
Cases of rabid wolves are low when compared to other species since wolves do not serve as primary reservoirs of the disease, but can be infected with rabies from other animals such as dogs, golden jackals and foxes. Cases of rabies in wolves are very rare in North America, though numerous in the eastern Mediterranean, Middle East and Central Asia. The reason for this is unclear, though it may be connected with the presence of jackals in those areas, as jackals have been identified as primary carriers. Wolves apparently develop the "furious" phase of rabies to a very high degree, which, coupled with their size and strength, makes rabid wolves perhaps the most dangerous of rabid animals, with bites from rabid wolves being 15 times more dangerous than those of rabid dogs. Rabid wolves usually act alone, traveling large distances and often biting large numbers of people and domestic animals. Most rabid wolf attacks occur in the spring and autumn periods. Unlike with predatory attacks, the victims of rabid wolves are not eaten, and the attacks generally only occur on a single day. Also, rabid wolves attack their victims at random, showing none of the selectivity displayed by predatory wolves, though the majority of recorded cases involve adult men, as men were frequently employed in agricultural and forestry activities which put them into contact with wolves.
Experts categorize non-rabid attacks based on the behavior of the victims prior to the attack and the motivations of the wolf.
Attacks whose victims had been threatening, disciplining, disturbing, teasing, or annoying attacking wolves, their pups, families, or packs are classified as "provoked", "defensive" or "disciplinary". The attackers in such cases seem motivated, not by hunger, but fear or anger and the need to escape from or drive the victim away. Examples would include a captive wolf attacking an abusive handler; a mother wolf attacking a hiker who had wandered near her pups; an attack on a wolf hunter in active pursuit; or a wildlife photographer, park visitor, or field biologist who had gotten too close for the wolf's comfort. While such attacks may still be dangerous, they tend to be limited to quick bites and not pressed.
Unprovoked attacks have been classified as "predatory"; "exploratory" or "investigative"; or "agonistic".
Unprovoked wolf attacks motivated by hunger are categorized as "predatory". In some such cases, a cautious wolf may launch "investigative" or "exploratory" attacks to test the victim for suitability as prey. As with defensive attacks, such attacks are not always pressed, as the animal may break off the attack or be convinced to look elsewhere for its next meal. In contrast, during "determined" predatory attacks, the victims may be repeatedly bitten on the head and face and dragged off and consumed, sometimes as far away as 1-2.5 km from the attack site, unless the wolf or wolves are driven off. Experts in India use the term "child lifting" to describe predatory attacks in which the animal silently enters a hut while everyone is sleeping, picks up a child, often with a silencing bite to the mouth and nose, and carries a child off by the head. Such attacks typically occur in local clusters, and generally do not stop until the wolves involved are eliminated.
Agonistic attacks are motivated not by hunger nor fear but rather by aggression; designed to kill or drive off a competitor away from a territory or food source. As with predatory attacks, these may begin with or be limited to exploratory or investigative attacks designed to test the vulnerability and determination of the victim. Even when pressed until the death of the victim, agonistic attacks normally leave the victims body uneaten, at least for some time.
Wolf attacks are more likely to happen when preceded by a long period of habituation, during which wolves gradually lose their fear of humans. This was apparent in cases involving habituated North American wolves in Algonquin Provincial Park, Vargas Island Provincial Park and Ice Bay, as well as 19th century cases involving escaped captive wolves in Sweden and Estonia.
Predatory attacks can occur at any time of the year, with a peak in the June–August period, when the chances of people entering forested areas (for livestock grazing or berry and mushroom picking) increase, though cases of non-rabid wolf attacks in winter have been recorded in Belarus, the Kirovsk and Irkutsk districts, in Karelia, and in Ukraine. Wolves with pups experience greater food stresses during this period.
A worldwide 2002 study by the Norwegian Institute of Nature Research showed that 90% of victims of predatory attacks were children under the age of 18, especially under the age of 10. In the rare cases where adults were killed, the victims were almost always women. This is consistent with wolf hunting strategies, wherein the weakest and most vulnerable categories of prey are targeted. Aside from their physical inferiority, children were historically more vulnerable to wolves as they were more likely to enter forests unattended to pick berries and mushrooms, as well as tend and watch over cattle and sheep on pastures. While these practices have largely died out in Europe, they are still the case in India, where numerous attacks have been recorded in recent decades. Further reason for the vulnerability of children is the fact that some may mistake wolves for dogs and thus approach them.
Experts may distinguish between captive and wild wolf attacks, the former referring to attacks by wolves, while still of course wild animals, are kept in captivity, perhaps as pets, in zoos, or similar situations.
In France, historical records compiled by rural historian Jean-Marc Moriceau indicate that during the period 1362–1918, nearly 7,600 people were killed by wolves, of whom 4,600 were killed by non-rabid wolves. Numerous attacks occurred in Germany during the 17th century after the Thirty Years' War, though the majority probably involved rabid wolves. Although Italy has no records of wolf attacks after WWII and the eradication of rabies in the 1960s, historians examining church and administrative records from northern Italy's central Po Valley region (which includes a part of modern-day Switzerland) found 440 cases of wolves attacking people between the 15th and 19th centuries. The 19th century records show that between 1801-1825, there were 112 attacks, 77 of which resulted in death. Of these cases, only five were attributed to rabid animals. In Latvia, records of rabid wolf attacks go back two centuries. At least 72 people were bitten between 1992-2000. Similarly, in Lithuania, attacks by rabid wolves have continued to the present day, with 22 people having been bitten between 1989-2001. Around 82 people were bitten by rabid wolves in Estonia during the 18th to 19th centuries, with a further 136 people being killed in the same period by non-rabid wolves, though it is likely that the animals involved in the latter cases were a combination of wolf-dog hybrids and escaped captive wolves.
As with North American scientists later on (see below), several Russian zoologists after the October Revolution cast doubt on the veracity of records involving wolf-caused deaths. Prominent among them was zoologist Petr Aleksandrovich Manteifel, who initially regarded all cases as either fiction or the work of rabid animals. His writings were widely accepted among Russian zoological circles, though he subsequently changed his stance when he was tasked with heading a special commission after World War II investigating wolf attacks throughout the Soviet Union, which had increased during the war years. A report was presented in November 1947 describing numerous attacks, including ones perpetrated by apparently healthy animals, and gave recommendations on how to better defend against them. The Soviet authorities prevented the document from reaching both the public and those who would otherwise be assigned to deal with the problem. All mention of wolf attacks was subsequently censored.
In Iran, 98 attacks were recorded in 1981, and 329 people were given treatment for rabid wolf bites in 1996. Records of wolf attacks in India began to be kept during the British colonial administration in the 19th century. In 1875, more people were killed by wolves than tigers, with the worst affected areas being the North West Provinces and Bihar. In the former area, 721 people were killed by wolves in 1876, while in Bihar, the majority of the 185 recorded deaths at the time occurred mostly in the Patna and Bghalpur Divisions. In the United Provinces, 624 people were killed by wolves in 1878, with 14 being killed during the same period in Bengal. In Hazaribagh, Bihar, 115 children were killed between 1910-1915, with 122 killed and 100 injured in the same area between 1980-1986. Between April 1989 to March 1995, wolves killed 92 people in southern Bihar, accounting for 23% of 390 large mammal attacks on humans in the area at that time. Police records collected from Korean mining communities during Japanese rule indicate that wolves attacked 48 people in 1928, more than those claimed by boars, bears, leopards and tigers combined.
There were no written records of wolf attacks on humans prior to the European colonization of the Americas, though the oral history of some Indigenous American tribes confirms that wolves occasionally did kill humans. Tribes living in woodlands feared wolves more than their tundra-dwelling counterparts, as they could encounter wolves suddenly and at close quarters. Skepticism among North American scientists over the alleged ferocity of wolves began when Canadian biologist Doug Clark investigated historical wolf attacks in Europe and, based on his own experiences with the relatively timid wolves of the Canadian wilderness, concluded that all historical attacks were perpetrated by rabid animals, and that healthy wolves posed no threat to humans. Although his findings were later criticized for failing to distinguish between rabid and predatory attacks, and the fact that the historical literature contained instances of people surviving the attacks at a time when there was no rabies vaccine, his conclusions were nonetheless adopted by other North American biologists. This view subsequently gained popularity among laypeople with the publication of Farley Mowat's semi-fictional 1963 book Never Cry Wolf, with the language barrier hindering the collection of further data on wolf attacks elsewhere. Although some North American biologists were aware of wolf attacks in Eurasia, they dismissed them as irrelevant to North American wolves.
By the 1970s, the fear of wolves was largely counteracted by the emergence of a pro-wolf lobby aiming to change public attitudes towards wolves, with the phrase “there has never been a documented case of a healthy wild wolf attacking a human in North America” (or variations thereof[a]) becoming a slogan for people seeking to create a more positive image for the wolf. Although several non-fatal attacks had been reported since 1985, it was not until April 26, 2000 when a 6-year-old boy survived an attack by a wolf in Icy Bay, Alaska that the assumption that healthy wild wolves were harmless became seriously challenged. The event was considered so unusual that it was reported in newspapers throughout the entire United States. Following the Icy Bay incident, biologist Mark E. McNay compiled a record of wolf-human encounters in Canada and Alaska from 1915-2001. Of the 80 described encounters, 39 involved aggressive behavior from apparently healthy wolves and 12 from animals confirmed to be rabid.
The first fatal attack in the 21st century occurred on November 8, 2005, when a young man was killed by wolves that had been habituated to people in Points North Landing, Saskatchewan, Canada while on March 8, 2010, a young woman was killed while jogging near Chignik, Alaska.