Parents, shepherds are anxious, but conservationists say reading ‘Little Red Riding Hood’ is to blame
The sighting this past winter of a beast long confined to fairy tales has caused a rift in this town of 9,000 people.
While anxious parents and local shepherds talk about a wolf hunt, conservationists say an excessively literal reading of “Little Red Riding Hood” is fueling hysteria against a canine they say merely “wants to play.”
Meanwhile, shepherds and civil servants are devising kinder ways to fend off the predator: loud music, news broadcasts, fearless donkeys and canine brainwashing.
It all started in the late hours of Feb. 9, when Bianka von Döllen, a 42-year-old mother, spotted a lone wolf near the town’s day nursery. “I froze, it was scary,” she said. “I no longer allow my daughter to ride her bike…I fear for her.”
About 150 years have passed since German hunters eradicated wolves from the nation’s woodlands. But the animal’s threatening aura has persisted through folk tales, including those by German writers Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm.
So when wolf packs began reappearing in Germany late in the 20th century, thanks to the efforts of conservationists, the animals faced a public-relations challenge. “The children already do role play and say they go on a wolf hunt and would shoot the beast,” said Sabrina Haust, the 33-year-old head of the Forest Kindergarten nursery here in Goldenstedt, a town that is next to a moor.
Once upon a time, before the sighting, the children would play freely in the woods before breakfast at the kindergarten. Those carefree days are gone. Ms. Haust had the nursery’s 3,300-square-foot playground ringed with a rainbow-colored barrier of fluttering flags believed to be a wolf-repellent, she says.
Meanwhile, parents have been drilling their children. In the presence of wolves, they are to stand still, get on their toes and clap their hands. Ms. Pille and her daughter, Lott, are practicing loud screaming.
But the real fight in the town doesn’t pit man against beast. It’s between townsfolk and what Willibald Meyer, the 67-year-old mayor, calls “the wolf missionaries…militant conservationists who have done everything to pave the way for the wolf’s return.”
One of them, Markus Bathen, an expert on wolves with the Nature and Biodiversity Conservation Union, dismisses the alarm as superstitious nonsense. “A wolf has never attacked a child,” says Mr. Bathen, who lives in an eastern German region populated by some of the country’s 35 documented wolf packs. “I have a 1½-year-old son, I let him play outside freely.”
Germany’s Environment Minister, Barbara Hendricks, told the nation to grow up. “Wolves like to eat deer or wild boars,” she said. “But it seems that in many heads the fear of the wicked wolf is still firmly anchored.”
Tino Barth, a shepherd from a rural hamlet located outside Goldenstedt, has bought three donkeys—Zora, Molly and Grandma Gretchen—to watch over his 200 sheep. “Their braying is quite scary,” he says. “I am the only sheep farmer in the region who hasn’t lost any sheep to the wolf.”
Ludger Bruns from nearby Visbek, who counts eight casualties in his flock so far, swears by his children’s old radio, connected to a car battery, wrapped in a plastic shopping bag, and blaring at full blast. “A wolf was close to my sheep, but it didn’t appear to like the music,” he says. “Instead it turned towards a herd that was grazing some 2 miles away.”
Rock and pop appear to work better than classical music, and newscasts have been surprisingly repellent, he says. Others have opted for trained dogs to shield their sheep from a threat their lobby group says is anything but “a fairy tale.” The training is key, says Stefan Völl, managing director of the Federation of German Shepherds. “We don’t want dogs that might drag somebody off their bicycle.”
Some wolf-haters have taken the fight beyond the law, putting up snap traps in the nature reserve of Langenmoor near the city of Cuxhaven, according to Lower Saxony’s Nature and Biodiversity Conservation Union.
This approach can come back to bite wolf-baiters. In April 2012, a 72-year-old hunter from the region of Westerwald shot a wolf in what he claimed was an accident. The man, whom the police didn’t identify, was fined €3,500 (about $3,800) by the local court a year later.
To prevent hounding of wolves, the environmental ministry of Lower Saxony has issued an order that allows trained hunters to shoot excessively inquisitive wolves with rubber bullets, capture them and “recondition” them.
The wolves are detained, brought to a wildlife park, equipped with radio collars, and put through an ordeal meant to make them deeply afraid of human beings. The tactics can range from loud sounds to rubber bullets and, in some cases, blows, says Frank Fass, who runs a wolf park with 12 animals near Goldenstedt and isn’t involved in reconditioning.
The wolves should realize humans aren’t their friends, says Lower Saxony’s Deputy Environment Minister Almut Kottwitz. The police in Oldenburg even dispatched a helicopter to locate the wolf of Goldenstedt and enlisted an “immobilizer” equipped with a stun gun to detain the animal—in vain.
“Hunting wolves is difficult, you can’t chase a wolf, it’s much faster than human beings,” says Mr. Fass.
Back in the village, residents put little faith in wolf rehab. Ms. Haust, the nursery director, says she has nothing against wolves as long as they keep their distance, “but if we have to hide…then I am afraid it has to go.”