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While this has happened about 22 years ago, I never really stopped thinking about it and still regard it as unsolved mystery. While I asked plenty outdoormen, nobody had this experience. Having recently discovered this site, I'm hoping to get at least some answers.

I apologize for the long description, but I believe it is necessary to ascertain all the facts first, as any small detail may be important.

Scenario:

  • Middle of January, around 1am at night (gets dark around 3.30pm over there, so it was as dark as it gets)
  • Quite warm temperature for the night (only around -20 Celsius, e.g. -5 Fahrenheit)
  • Weather was good, initially the wind wasn't very strong, but then started gradually picking up such that walking became much harder and problematic by the time I got back home (e.g. you have to focus and exert quite some energy so the wind does not actually bring you down)
  • Region has some steep hills, deep woods (and as an aside anecdote: a cold-war russian bunker) and small villages (think : couple hundred people, occasionally up to 800 - 1,000) scattered along the main road
  • Region is known to have few wolf packs. Attacks on humans are rare, but not out of question (around 1 each 10 years). You know those 'scary cry-wolf' kids stories ? Well, in our village, that story gets attached to concrete people and names.

  • I walked a short distance - maybe about 4-5 kms, mostly in total darkness (no headlamp or anything), directly over the main road, when I felt something was watching me, and indeed, at a place where road gets quite close to the woods (about 100 meters), I could see quite a few pairs of eyes.

  • It was at that time that I realized the howling (it's a common sound in winter, so we get used to it fast) I was hearing before, was of those wolves (obviously)
  • The alpha male then started running against me, but just him alone - the pack stayed at the boundary between woods and snowy field by the road
  • He however stopped quite far - about 5-7 meters from me
  • Over the course of next 30-40 minutes, he was gradually coming closer to me, step by step, but the closest he got was about 3 meters.
  • He was growling, teeth out, he definitely looked ready to take a bite, had that pose where whole body is lowered (as a cat), getting ready to jump
  • But he didn't. Despite the pack very loudly provoking him and aggressively howling
  • This encounter lasted about 30-40 minutes, at which point I reached the top of the hill (with my village), where there were finally some first houses and street lamps
  • He had me, for over half an hour, in total darkness, at a distance of 3-5 meters. Backed up with about 6 wolves (never exactly counted all those eyes, as I was busy with the alpha male, but know for sure there were more than 5)

  • At one point, I could clearly see the pack was very thin, mustn't have eaten for quite some time, so I would provide a welcome and nutritious fresh meal

So, why on earth did they not attack ?!?

Additional facts about me:

  • Height : 190 cm
  • Weight : ~100 kg (but my 'build' is wider, so I was very far from being fat at that weight)

I understand how they tracked me. Having just undergone a very strong argue with my brother, I was full of adrenaline, so I must have been reeking it for kilometers (especially in the wind) in that temperature.

It is this adrenaline that has kept me calm all the time, while I was walking with wolf for those 30-40 minutes. I was looking into his eyes all this time (walking straight up the steep hill, yet head turned right so I could see what he was doing), and could 'see' the hesitation to attack, yet there was clearly a very strong hunger (he was very, very thin, poor thing) and instinct to just jump and take a bite.

I only read it recently you are not supposed to engage the wolf like that (as it is regarded as provocation).

I believe that level of adrenalin is also why I did not get scared (as those pheromones, which I already knew at that time from painful experience when one dog bit me to my back couple years back, can enrage even a small dog, let alone a proper wolf).

My only semi-rational explanation is that the wolf must have been waiting for the fear pheromone signal, which didn't came. And my height/weight must have become obvious only from those 5 meters (not sure about their physiology of vision - how it works in wolves (perspective and such)), so he became hesitant whether to attack.

Any other ideas ?

  • 2
    Veeery scary story. I am glad you weren't attacked although some poor tiny wolves possibly starved to death because of you ;) – Wills Jan 11 '16 at 21:24
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    So... where in the world is -20°C considered, "Quite warm"? – ShemSeger Jan 11 '16 at 22:26
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    @ShemSeger I had orientation points couple kilometers away - the street lamps. But outside of that, the night was cloudy, occasionally moon lit the snow such that the road was easily distinguished. The wolf's "look" was however very intense. Like a magnet. Almost spiritual. I am very confused as all documentaries on wolves I have seen, show the wolf pack attacking together. Since when does tha alpha male go hunt alone? Perhaps some east-European breeds behave differently? Or it was some kind of "test"? In documentaries, they show wolves attack much bigger animals, so my size alone is not it. – BladeRunner Jan 11 '16 at 22:30
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    @ShemSeger It's a microclimate thing due to the hills. All surrounding towns within 20 km are much warmer - up to 7-10 degrees Celsius warmer-some don't even get below -20 C at night!So, in the middle of night in January, I'd consider something like -30 C cold. Plus,nature forces you to acclimatize-our old house,for first 15 yrs of my life,only had an outside latrine. Imagine,daily,spending 15 minutes with your pants down at -25 Cels.,with brutally cold draft from below, just with sweater on top(jacket was impractical).I somehow never acclimated enough! This always felt cold!Maybe soft genes? – BladeRunner Jan 11 '16 at 23:24
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    Sounds like the "alpha male" was defending a territory (conflict between packs- the leaders fight). Wolves don't growl at prey. – michael Jan 12 '16 at 4:25
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So, first of all there is no alpha male! An alpha male only exists in captive wolf packs but never ever in the wild. Further reading about this topic here for example. The pack you've encountered was a family of three (more likely in January) or two generations.

The average pack consists of a family of 5–11 animals (1–2 adults, 3–6 juveniles and 1–3 yearlings)

From Wikipedia

What you've experienced is pretty normal for hungry wolves. It's categorized as a "Non-rabid unprovoked predatory attack".

Predatory attacks

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.

From Wikipedia

This publication contains everything you need to know. Page 16 is the part we are talking about here :)

In some cases it has been suspected that the wolves are "testing" or investigating the person as potential prey, which can result in close approach, being knocked over, or bites.

So, to answer the question "Why did the wolf-pack withdraw from attacking me?":

the wolves decided that you were not suitable as prey (luckily).


That was somewhat the easy part. I feel like you want to know why the wolves decided that you are not suitable, won't you? The problem is that we can't look in their heads and have no video etc.

However, these are the key facts which make you suitable as a victim:

  • Running
  • Panicking (loosing the control over your emotions/fear)
  • Appearing weak and small

So, you've instinctively made everything right. As you've already guessed, you saved your life cause you've controlled your emotion (fear, panic etc.) but the most important thing is that you didn't run!


A few additional points

While I asked plenty outdoormen, nobody had this experience.

That's because attacks like these are extremely rare:

In the half-century up to 2002, there were eight fatal attacks in Europe and Russia, three in North America


Over the course of next 30-40 minutes, he was gradually coming closer to me, step by step, but the closest he got was about 3 meters. He was growling, teeth out, he definitely looked ready to take a bite, had that pose where whole body is lowered (as a cat), getting ready to jump.

It was trying to provoke you. It wanted to make you start to run what would've been your end :$.


  • Height: 190 cm
  • Weight: ~100 kg

Is by far nothing which is considered as "weak and easy to hunt" by a wolf. Remember the "Appearing weak and small"-part from above?

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.


I only read it recently you are not supposed to (stare at) the wolf like that (as it is regarded as provocation).

You are right but often it's a little bit misunderstood. You don't provoke the animal with a short staring - you've to actively stare the animal down. So, I don't believe that your staring was recognized as a provocation.


As you've described, your region is quite used to the wolves around. Therefore habituation might apply.

Habituation

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.

  • 2
    Thanks a lot for the answer ! It's way more comprehensive than I could have ever hoped for ! That wiki link is especially informative. Last time I checked the wiki on wolves was about 10-15 yrs ago. As for the "done everything right" - well, I was never a fast runner, so I knew right away there was no point in trying to run. I'm pretty sure however that at that age I did not know that running is considered by animals as provocation (that info I learnt only many years later from watching documentaries). I merely discarded it right away as being an completely unrealistic option. – BladeRunner Jan 12 '16 at 17:25
  • Even though I was never a fast runner, I was strong as a bull as I was routinely manipulating packs/bags that weighed around 100 kg, so I'm pretty sure I should be able to snap its neck with bare hands.The wolf looked to weigh 30 kg at most (definitely not 45 kg that the wiki says). Right after that I also realized, as I was walking over the asphalt road, that using simple gravity and stepping onto wolf's head should do the trick. Of course, if a full pack jumped at me at the same time, I'd end up lying down, vulnerable to bite to neck. But, full of adrenaline, I was sure ready to fight. – BladeRunner Jan 12 '16 at 18:06
  • I'm slightly confused by the 'habituation' term, though. While they may have gone through period of habituation, I can't help by compare this to local foxes, who were habituated an order of magnitude more than wolves. in winter, you could easily spot a fox in village in the middle of the day (hunting for chicken/rabbits that usually had their own building), though they they did run off when you started screaming at them. Seeing a wolf was however extremely rare even at my place.I'm 100 % sure none of my local friends ever saw(let alone encounter) a wolf.Perhaps our wolves were not habituated? – BladeRunner Jan 12 '16 at 18:19
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    In terms of "deciding you are not suitable as prey" - Every hunter has to make a choice between the chance of a meal and the chance of getting hurt trying to get that meal. The Wolf decided you would fight back, and could hurt him - it was too risky to try to eat you. – user5330 Jan 12 '16 at 20:51
  • @BladeRunner It's not like they're suddenly lapdogs if so :) However, you are right, they might or might not have been habituated. We can't be sure without traveling back in time... – OddDeer Jan 13 '16 at 7:36
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I think you're told (i.e. we're taught) not to run from wolves (they can out-run you).

If I take my dog for a walk and we see a cat, then the dog's behaviour depends on the cat:

  • If the cat stays where it is (watching the dog) then the dog walks past it
  • If the cat runs away then the dog will chase it

I think that the wolf will use your behaviour to decide whether or not you're prey animal; for example:

  • Some prey animals (e.g. deer) are bigger than a wolf but run away.
  • Some non-prey animals (e.g. wolverines) are smaller than a wolf but don't run away.
2

Keeping your eyes on the wolf in a way that he could observe might also have been helpful. Because he was very thin (poor thing) he might also have been very weak. He might have been waiting for a moment when you were “off guard” so he could have the advantage of surprise. You did not give him that. (I just read somewhere that domestic dogs are highly attuned to human gaze, and behave very differently when they know a person’s eyes are upon them compared to when they know the person is looking at something else.) Finally, I think wolves attack from behind, like the small domestic dog that bit you, and the three that bit me when I was helping out at a dog sanctuary. Your strolling companion was at your side. I don’t know if the wolf preferred to walk at your side, indicating that he might have been hoping you had some leftover cabbage rolls (golubtsi) to share instead of hoping to kill you, or if you forced him to by proceeding very slowly.

Of course, your not running was highly beneficial, but that was mentioned by another respondent.

Is it possible that the wolf and his pack received food with some regularity, from the local people or from others passing by on their way to somewhere else?

  • I'm pretty sure if somebody was feeding the wolves explicitly, that eventually we'd have heard that. They had a pretty bad reputation, so I doubt anyone would be doing that. On the other hand, now that I am 20+ years older than when that happened, I really feel bad for those poor creatures. Especially since I got hold of a Husky puppy 2 years ago, my view on them has completely changed and when I recently watched some documentary on wolves, I realized they behave almost identically to my Husky , except they have to fend for themselves and don't get their chicken + dry food daily :-( – BladeRunner Aug 30 '18 at 11:33

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