Author: John Linnell
That wolves can create conflicts is not news. Unfortunately there are many examples of where wolves get blamed for conflicts of which they are not the cause. German media have recently run two such stories, which are summarised below based on details provided in the media.
The strange case of the horses on the highway
On 12 December 2013 at 22:45 a group of horses broke out of their pasture near Meissen in Saxony, and ended up close to a highway. The owners and police were rapidly on the scene and rounded up the horses. As they were being led home along the edge of the highway something spooked the lead horse, causing the others to panic and end up on the road. Three cars were involved in collisions, resulting in two people being hospitalised and seriously injured, and nine horses receiving fatal injuries. The causes of the horses’ initial break out and subsequent panic are unknown. The owner speculated that they may have been spooked by a roe deer or wild boar. However, after the event an anonymous “expert” declared that it must have been a wolf that scared the horses. Despite being unable to identify the “expert” and the total absence of any evidence that wolves were even present in that part of the state of Saxony, the claim has been taken up by some media and used to fuel the anti-wolf sentiment in the region.
Examples of media coverage:
Death of a dog
On 10 January 2014 a dog (German shepherd mix) was found bitten to death in an outdoor enclosure at a boarding kennel. The dog in the neighbouring enclosure (a Ridgeback / Dogo Canario) had a small injury to one ear. The case was quickly picked up by the media and headlines reading “First dog killed by a wolf in Germany” were quickly released. The dead dog was sent to the Leibniz Institute for Zoo and Wildlife Research for post mortem analysis. Additionally, DNA samples were collected from the bite marks and fur remains between the victim’s teeth and from the ear wound of the female dog. The DNA samples were analysed at the Conservation Genetics Group of the Senckenberg Research Institute. The genetics analyses were clear in that they only found DNA evidence from the two dogs, with no third animal (either wolf or dog) being involved. The autopsy showed the dog had not – as stated upon first impression and cited by the newspapers – been killed by a bite to the throat, but rather by repeated bites to various parts of the body. Obviously a fight had happened between the two dogs during which the German shepherd mix received so severe injuries that he died.
http://www.lausitznews.de/pressebericht_11324.html – official press release publishing the genetic results showing it was the dog
http://www.ardmediathek.de/mdr-fernsehen/mdr-um-4/hat-ein-wolf-einen-hund-gerissen?documentId=19059396 video report before they knew speculating about wolves may have killed the dog and also mentioning the “horse incident”
http://www.news.de/panorama/855491244/angst-vorm-boesen-wolf-schaeferhund-in-tierpension-totgebissen/1/ – report stating that wolves killed dog
The role of media in spreading conflict
In both cases there were unsubstantiated and unfounded rumours that wolves were to blame for the tragic events. Although it is not unprecedented that wolves can chase horses or kill dogs, the probability of this being the cause of the described events was tiny compared to other alternative explanations. However, the media immediately chose the most dramatic angle on the story, running the speculation as an almost certain conclusion. These are not the only examples of such tabloid abuses of the wolf. It is impossible to say if this is a result of a deliberate bias among certain media, or if it reflects a general trend to seize on any angle that grabs readers’ attention. What is clear is that the consequence of this is to escalate conflicts and to polarize standpoints in what is already a heated conflict. The wolf is not the only loser.