By Gerry Hadden
In Europe wolves have been making a comeback for decades. In some areas they've been reintroduced on purpose. But they've been spreading on their own as well, via so-called "green corridors" that let them migrate long distances, especially across southern Europe.
That's the case with the handful of wolves that have shown up recently in northeast Spain. Ecologists are cheering their presence. But the animals are now making unusually bold forays towards towns and cities. Authorities are trying to stop this, to save livestock and to prevent a backlash against an animal whose mere presence can still stoke fear among some people.
For more than a century, in this part of Spain, the sheep's only real predator has been the occasional wild dog. But last November shepherd Dirk Madriles began to wonder. At dawn on a forested mountainside he found his flock grazing as usual. But the wool around the throats of six of his sheep was stained red with blood. The wolves, he suspected with dismay, were back.
"A wolf had bitten them, he said at his ranch on a recent morning, but they were still alive. Then I found the first dead animal. Walking around I found a second. You see, the wolf attacks at night, when the sheep can barely see. It kills one on the periphery. The sheep flee, but only for about 100 meters."
Which, he said, lets the wolf eat till its heart's desire.
In all, Madriles found seven dead sheep that day, their entrails — from their lungs to their livers — missing, in what experts say is a telltale wolf feeding pattern. Then in February they struck again. Dirk said he tried to raise the alarm. But like in the Aesops fable, The Boy Who Cried Wolf, no one believed him.
Like a Ghost
"People are very scared of wolves," he said. "So they didn't believe it. Even the hunters and ranchers doubted me. The wolf is like a ghost. People don't believe because they haven't see them."
Or heard them. A good night of howls would have dispelled any doubts. But according to Spanish wolf researcher Jordi Ruiz, there's a good reason Madriles and his neighbors haven't been woken by them in the night. Wolves only howl in packs, he said, and to communicate with other wolves over long distances.
"We have few wolves for the moment, only about five per year. And they're constantly crossing back and forth into France. What we're seeing are just the scouts."
Ruiz works for the regional government of Catalonia. His job is to protect the area's flora and fauna. He finally put an end to the wolf/dog debate at Madriles's ranch, by DNA testing scat found at the kills. He says results give a 99.9 percent probability that the killers were not canine.
Spain does have a healthy wolf population in the northwest, where some 3,000 are said to live in the mountains and countryside straddling the Portuguese border.
But these so-called scout wolves in Catalonia have come all the way from Italy — just as the Romans did, Ruiz said. But what's most surprising is that they even reached Madriles' ranch. Because its right next to two towns, and just 25 miles from downtown Barcelona, a city of over a million people.
Arming the Shepherds
Catalonia's wolves are so few you can't hunt them. But Ruiz said once a few females show up the population could grow quickly. So he's taken a tip from a European Union program and has started arming shepherds — with cute little puppies.
Madriles received Dana, a Pyrenees Mountain Dog, or Great Pyrenees, about six months ago. She already dwarfs his sheep. On a recent morning Dana lay about with Madriles' flock in their new electrified enclosure. The dog, it turns out, actually thinks she's a sheep.
"That's why it's important that no one else touches her," said Madriles, pinning her to the ground gently but firmly. "That she gets all of her affection from the sheep. I do have to hold her to the ground like this once a day, so that when she's reaches adolescences she doesn't try to keep me away from the flock too. I'm the Alpha male," he added.
So the solution to the ancestral problem with wolves turns out to be just as old: guard dogs. When Dana is grown she'll weigh about 140 or 150 pounds. An adult wolf might reach 85 pounds. No match there. Wolves don't mess with big dogs. If they smell one they'll usually just hunt elsewhere.
Sounds like a tidy solution. The sheep are safe, the wolves are safe. But are people safe? Yes, is the short answer. A wolf hasn't attacked a human in Spain since 1902, according to the government. And in that case, parents had left their toddler unattended in the woods.
Nevertheless, in the Spanish press there have been articles about how the nearby vacation towns of Moia and Castelltercol worry tourists will stop coming once they catch wind of the big bad you-know-what.
But on a recent afternoon townsfolk said that the only thing they're worried about are the wolves themselves. Take Anna Brugarolas, who runs a small company in Castelltercol that makes sweets. She said she lives near Madrile's ranch and has known for a while that wolves were coming around.
"It bothers me that the news has gotten out," she said. "The wolf is a protected animal. And now if an animal is killed in the fields a rancher who once thought it was dogs is going to blame the wolf. And we'll end up criminalizing them again."
Fear and Hatred
Rekindling the same ancient fear and hatred that caused man to hunt the wolves nearly to extinction generations ago. But if shepherd Dirk Madriles is any indication, the wolf of fairy tale lore may be returning without the old baggage.
Back at his ranch, Madriles was tending to his lambs, also kept behind an electric fence for safety.
"I'd love to wake up one day," he said, "and find an anonymous note in my mailbox saying, I killed the wolf. Sleep soundly. But I couldn't kill it myself. I think it's right that the wolf is here, that it's an ecological achievement to have him. The wolves kill the deer who transmit diseases. They kill the wild boar. Before the wolves competed with men but today that just doesn't make sense."