National Geographic News
Photo of a Mexican gray wolf.

An endangered Mexican gray wolf at the Living Desert Zoo.

Photograph by Roy Toft, National Geographic

Jeremy Berlin

National Geographic

Published October 29, 2013

In rural Reserve, New Mexico, children wait for school buses inside boxy, wood-and-mesh structures that look like chicken coops. The "kid cages" are meant as protection from wolves. But are they even necessary?

The issue is part of a long-simmering political debate, which recently came to a boil in the Southwest when the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service said it wants the Endangered Species Act to cover about 75 Mexican wolves in New Mexico and Arizona. That would make it illegal to kill these wolves—a smaller subspecies of gray wolf—and expand the area where they can roam safely.

Conservative groups, which call wolves a threat to humans and livestock alike, say that would be government overreach. Wolf defenders, who cite the fact that no wolf attacks have been documented in New Mexico or Arizona, call the new kid cages a stunt.

To understand the issue on scientific terms, we spoke with Daniel MacNulty, a wildlife-ecology professor at Utah State University who's been studying wolves in Yellowstone National Park for the past 18 years.

Are wolves in the Southwest really a threat to schoolchildren and other humans?

Are they a meaningful threat? No. Is the probability of wolves hurting someone zero? No. Is it close to zero? Yes, very close.

A child in a rural area is more likely to [be hurt or killed in] an incident with an off-road all-terrain vehicle, or in an encounter with a feral dog, or in a hunting accident. There are very, very few instances in North America of wolves hurting anybody, let alone children.

Another thing to keep in mind: Mexican wolves are not very large—they weigh just 60 to 80 pounds. Compare that to wolves up in Yellowstone, which can be upward of 130 pounds. As a result, [Mexican wolves are] more easily intimidated by people, livestock, and wild prey.

So I think people are overreacting here, as is often the case with wolves.

Practically speaking, would those "kid cages" even protect children from wolves?

I've not seen the cages. But wolves are not sharks. Cages are unnecessary because wolves aren't going to be attacking children at the bus stop. The suggestion that they would is fear-mongering and unhinged from the facts.

I think the "kid cages" are a publicity stunt designed to stoke opposition to Mexican wolf recovery in general and to the federal government in particular. Why else would the anti-federalist group Americans for Prosperity be circulating photos and videos of the cages? I would be skeptical of any wolf-related information coming from this organization or its agents.

Why do you think wolves are so often vilified in the popular imagination?

They take things that we value: They kill livestock and pets. They infringe on our sense of safety. The fact that they take things from us creates alarm and exaggerated notions of their power.

Wolves do have the power to kill—there's no question about it. That's how they make a living. But that power is checked by very real biological limits: their skeletal morphology, their behavior, their size, their age—factors that limit their capacity to kill.

For that reason, they're selective about what they kill. They primarily target juvenile livestock, because they're small and they're easy to kill—there's very little risk of being injured in the process. Same with wild prey. They primarily kill fawns and elk calves. And among the adults, they mainly kill the older animals.

When I see wolves in the field, they often run away. The reason is they're intimidated. And that's in Yellowstone. My guess is that Mexican wolves are generally even more intimidated [by people].

Does that change when it's a pack situation, rather than an individual wolf?

There's no data to show it, but I'd say a pack is probably more likely to be bold than an individual. Solitary wolves are fairly easily intimidated.

In terms of hunting, we know from our analyses of packs up in Yellowstone that success at hunting elk peaks at about four [wolves]. In other words, beyond four wolves, each additional wolf doesn't increase the success rate of the pack.

We think the reason for that is that when a pack of ten shows up, they don't all contribute equally to the outcome of the hunt. Only about four of them actually do anything. The rest are there simply to be on hand when a kill is made.

Pack size probably matters most from a social perspective—in terms of wolves' relationship with each other. A bigger pack will overcome a smaller pack in a competition for turf.

What should people do when they encounter wolves?

Encountering wolves in the wild is a thrilling, safe experience. If you're lucky enough to see them without them detecting you, then sit back, relax, and enjoy the opportunity to observe wild wolf behavior. If they detect you first, it's likely they'll run off before you even know it. Wild wolves are generally intimidated by humans.

So how should we think about wolves?

What people have to understand is that wolves do not have supernatural powers. They can't jump over mountain ranges. They can't bring down a moose with a single bite to the neck. They have intrinsic biological limits, which means they have a constrained role on the landscape and in the environment.

People can avoid overreacting to wolves by understanding that the power of wolves is limited. It's as simple as that.

46 comments
marianne Smith
marianne Smith

There is no such thing as the big bad wolf. Only big bad people. I would be more worried about the human predator that may drive by the bus stop and choose their next victim. More children have been snatched from school bus stops and while walking to school than have ever even seen a wolf in the wild. And ranchers are compensated for wolf kills at a monetary rate probably higher than the net profit for selling an 18 month old steer for slaughter after feed, vet bills, trucking etc. These child boxes are exactly as the author states; a ridiculous attempt to frighten parents.

anna chally
anna chally

thank you ALL for giving me and many others a much needed LAUGH!!!!! That is the nicest way i could say what i am thinking right now....LOL,LOL,LOL

Daryl Johanssen
Daryl Johanssen

"When trouble arises and things look bad, there is always one individual who perceives a solution and is willing to take command.  Very often, that individual is crazy."

Pulitzer Prize winning columnist/humorist, Dave Barry

Dean Steppe
Dean Steppe

In Virginia, the Coyotes are large enough to kill full grown deer when they hunt in packs. New Mexico Wolves are larger and any wolf, coyote, coydog or dog can kill a small child. What are the chances? Slim but who wants to take the risk with a child's life? A man was tracked, attacked, killed and eaten by wolves two years ago near a mining operation in Canada. A toddler was killed by a pack of coyotes in Southern CA in ' the early 80's. So it's not like they don't go after an easy meal.

Thara Sizemore
Thara Sizemore

wolves wont even come near the road so why the heck would they go to the street to hurt a bunch of kids wolves are big sweethearts my dad owns a wolf reserve and the wolves are so kind and gentle they will walk right up to u and lick ur face ppl r over reacting

Linda Liberty
Linda Liberty

While in Toronto two years ago a young lady was jogging in the woods - on a popular bicycle, jogging path. She was viciously attacked by coyotes and killed. I'll bet she wished the environmentalists cared more for humans than wildlife.

Linda Liberty
Linda Liberty

Canadian experts warned the USFWS that introducing wolves into the US would be a colossal mistake. The Dutch did a study in recent years showing that after setting aside over 13,000 acres to no hunting or human access other than minimal research over 70% of the animals died of starvation. Fact is most of the wildlife everyone enjoys is preserved by hunters, and anglers who keep animal populations in balance. Just as cattle grazing, and lumber industry prevent out-of-control forest fires. Hunting keeps nature in balance. Wolves are vicious predatory animals and they do kill valuable livestock. 


Linda Liberty
Linda Liberty

The propaganda from the Save the Wildlife Foundation results in profits of over $35 million a year from lemming that believe the "extinct" fraud. Yellowstone had over 19,000 elk before the wolf introduction, now there are 4,000 elk left. 

Linda Liberty
Linda Liberty

The liberals hug a tree and kill babies. Now they pet cute wolves and hate ranchers. They value abortionists, predators more than human babies, and livestock prey. I was in Toronto two years ago and there was a news story of a lady jogger attacked by coyotes -she was viciously killed. The entire plan to place wolves in New Mexico costs taxpayers millions at least $440,000 per wolf and cost ranchers trying to raise livestock even more. If liberals love wolves so much lets place them in their backyards. The Grey wolf is not indigenous to New Mexico and doesn't belong here.

Jeanie Cariello
Jeanie Cariello

People need to learn about wolves and stop being so ignorant.

Richard Townsend
Richard Townsend

Majestic creatures.  Natural part of ecosystem.  Donkeys in with livestock for protection?

James Salkas
James Salkas

There are situations and things to be afraid of, and then there's the boogeyman.   Lightning, auto accidents, child molesters are worth worrying about.   Wolves, no.   To even see a wolf is very uncommon, let alone have one hang around.       

Jada Sndyer
Jada Sndyer

Save the wolves. They don't deserve such a bad reputation! 

Lamin Ceesay
Lamin Ceesay

It is the largest member of it 's family with males averaging 43–45 kg -95–99 lb. Evaluation of Petition to List Gray Wolf as Endangered Species.

Tena Rodriguez
Tena Rodriguez

It has ben my experience that wolves naturally protect babies and young children and will run from adults.  These animals are very loving but must be respected for what they are. Please help save all wolves.

Leonardo Alenizi
Leonardo Alenizi

Its the same old story, "divine" humans being the animals they say they aren't. I would love to believe that our "superior" intellect and "compassion" could raise our species to a higher plane, but those with power still act with the reptile brain! Fear, resource acquisition, killing your rival, manipulating conspecifics=dirty primate politics! Amazing...

Jim G.
Jim G.

Somebody might want to look at the incident in the Tahoe/Reno area a few years ago where a coyote snatched and killed a young child before one says there is little risk - its only a little risk if its some other family's child, apparently.  They then opened season on the coyote's practically eradicating them in the area.  So, what's better lose a child and then have "the people" deal with it by killing more wolves or to think about how to do it without a broad government brush that may lead to greater numbers of wolves to be a threat.  A fan of wolves, but not always a fan of the laws that may be used to protect them when people's lives could be threatened.  Also ask the people in Montana how the overzealous protection of grizzlies has impacted their safety.  Just sayin', easy to be an advocate for some things when you don't have to live with the realities.  Find a wolf or bear in your house or backyard one day and it might change how you feel about it

C J
C J

This is a typical "throw the word kids into an argument and it somehow becomes valid" move.  Ranchers in that area are afraid that the wolves will kill their livestock and others are also afraid that the wolves will take trophy Mule Deer and Elk, i.e., taking those trophies from hunters, some of whom pay guides a lot of money to get a big mulie or elk.  So, since those arguments didn't work so well, they bring 'kids' into the argument, you know, "won't somebody please think of the children?" and they think it will somehow show that "wolves don't belong there" even though they were there for tens of thousands of years.  I've backpacked unarmed for days in the Blue Range Wilderness and I didn't feel afraid of wolves at all.

Larry Hawley
Larry Hawley

I cant understand people,we move in to an animals habitat, claim it as ours and instead of preserving the animals,we try to kill it. Ive been in the back country and have had the privilege of seeing a wolf and was amazed at the beauty and grace of these animals, 

RC Lee
RC Lee

These people who are afraid of the New Mexican wolves are seriously disturbed and/or misinformed. It must be sad living in a state of fear. I've walked unarmed 100 yards from a pack of a dozen large Canadian wolves in the dead of winter in a very isolated area. No problem.  

Get a life, people.

Swiftright Right
Swiftright Right

Ok I dont have a horse in this race but,..The guy is defending wolfs saying they could not be a real threat to a kid and then states

"They take things that we value: They kill livestock and pets."

and

"they're selective about what they kill. They primarily target juvenile livestock, because they're small and they're easy to kill" 

Yeah because an 8 year old can put up a fight but a 200 pound cow calf cant?!?

Taylor Birkelo
Taylor Birkelo

@Dean Steppe Last time I checked Coyotes hunt in pairs not packs. Get educated before you try and spread lies. 

Bill Rulon-Miller
Bill Rulon-Miller

@Dean Steppe Coyotes and wolves have very different behavior overall and Mexican wolves are specifically very shy and very rare. If one is truly concerned about the hypothetical safety of their child then do not leave them alone in a wild area. Besides cars and domestic dogs, not to mention strangers or even their own relatives, pose a much greater threat to children and should be of far greater concern than wolves.

Bill Rulon-Miller
Bill Rulon-Miller

@Linda Liberty What does that have to do with the Mexican gray wolf? Coyotes are completely different animals and Toronto is a completely different environment. One can be supportive of the well being of both humans and wildlife and most environmentalists in fact are. If you hate the environment and wild animals so much perhaps you should move to the moon.

Bill Rulon-Miller
Bill Rulon-Miller

@Linda Liberty You essentially did what is known as a "Gish Gallop". You said so many falsehoods in your paragraph that it would be difficult to correct them all accurately without writing more than 3 pages.

Taylor Birkelo
Taylor Birkelo

@Linda Liberty How many elk were in Yellowstone before wolves became extinct, Bet you don't know but it is right where it is now and the elk population exploded 500% it's natural level. AKA where your getting your 19,000 elk from. These elk were not only unnatural but were devastating the whole entire park. They were chewing forests down to nothing, leaving many animals extinct from the park. Wolves were REINTRODUCED back into the park in 1995 and Biologists have never seen such a dramatic effect. The park was finally coming back to life and many species which disappeared from the finally returned despite the couple that went extinct. Forests began to re grown and not only did this make the ecosystems more healthy it also had a dramatic effect on the animals in Yellowstone. Beaver damns increased from 1 to 12 now that the elk and moose were eating every bit of vegetation that park had to offer. Yes hunters do raise a ton of money for persevering and expanding wildlife, but why should we have too. Probably because we ruined everything that this country had to offer from 100,000's of wolves to over 60 Million bison. Minnesota my home state is s prime example of state which many think is a state full of funny talking people, wolves running rapidly and wildlife flourishing. It is none of these. The state use to include large populations of Caribou, Elk, Moose, and Bison. Now none of these main species flourish. Caribou are extinct, Elk were extinct till 100 moved down from Canada back into the state which the farmers can't stand, there are no longer ANY wild Bison left and the moose are well on their way to being extinct as well as their numbers continue to plummet at an extremely alarming rate. Much of this cause by us hunter who don't give a damn about anybody but ourselves. Not only these animals but black bears, grizzly bears, cougars, lynx, bobcats and wolves were abundant throughout the state but are no longer except a few due to us great hunters.Not to mention the deer population has exploded taking over the land that theses great herbivorous use to roam the state. This was done due to tilling, mass killing to reduce native american food supplies and English greed. These deer have intruded on the Northern pine forest that use to cover over a third of the state. They eat many of these young pines that grow and don't allow natural forest to replenish themselves. Ironically this was greatly reduced when the bounty on Wolves ended and were allowed to roam a small fraction of their former territory. Really many democrats don't give a damn about wildlife. Wolves are the least likely to attack livestock due to bad public perception, but are the only ones who are compensated for. I'm sure that lady would have been so glad to be shot to death like many people are EVERY SINGLE DAY in this great country. You have to be kidding me to say WOLVES ARE NOT INDIGENOUS the southwest. They used to roam almost every single inch of this continent and many parts of the world for over 30,000 years. Also 13,000 acres is a joke to try and have a population of Wolves, bad experiment and what about the wolves thriving in many parts of the world except Europe and North America. I strongly recommend you to watch the lords of nature documentary and get educated in the topic of keystone species because it seems you have none. 440000 per wolf hahaha give me a break this is laughable, way too high. So before you get shown up by A 20 YEAR OLD about how your facts are false and ignorant,you should read up a little on the subject before you go spreading fake facts to us all. Another fake fact you rant about is how we keep populations in order, ha yeah right, we hunt them a couple weeks a year and then they are free to ruin whatever they want, unless wolves are present to prevent this. Canadians have more wolves than you can imagine, they were probably just worried about people like you spreading lies into people's minds about how wolves are bad when they are more beneficial to us than you can even grasp your little brain around. 

Bill Rulon-Miller
Bill Rulon-Miller

@Linda Liberty A quick fact check shows that this information is an outright lie. There are about 5,000 elk that overwinter in Yellowstone but there are at least twice that many that stay for the summer and migrate out. Since wolves have been reintroduced to the park the riparian habitat and surrounding areas have improved greatly. That is how ecosystems work. Predators are needed to control prey populations.

Bill Rulon-Miller
Bill Rulon-Miller

@Linda Liberty  Wolves are already in New Mexico, they never left, they were never fully extirpated from their range in the southwestern states, only severely reduced and now USFW is trying to allow them to come back. Your financial numbers are also off. You should seriously actually read up on the subject at hand before commenting.

Kim Penn
Kim Penn

@James Salkas  Very good point. Leaving kids alone by the bus stop or other places is a bad idea, whether you have wolves or not.

marianne Smith
marianne Smith

@Jim G. Coyotes are not wolves. Coyotes have become so habituated to human development that they live in the middle of large cities. San Francisco has a thriving, breeding population in Golden Gate Park. NYC has them too. You will not find wolf packs living in urban or even suburban areas. And the number of people killed annually, actually killed, not eaten after death, by coyotes and/or wolves is less than one. So try to forget all the children's stories we grew up with and realize that there is no big bad wolf. Only big bad people.

Taylor Birkelo
Taylor Birkelo

@Jim G. Happens everyday and i'm not scared of a damn thing. Wolves are not coyotes, this is just like saying we should have an open season on pet dogs because they are just as closely if not more related to wolves than coyotes are and are way more dangerous.

Bill Rulon-Miller
Bill Rulon-Miller

@Jim G. I have had alligators, bears and coyotes close to where I live and have thought nothing negative of it. Learn about the species you live near and exercise common sense and caution accordingly.  Many of the people who advocate for these animals do have some experience with them. 

Just so you know, grizzlies and coyotes are very different in behavior than wolves and there has never been a recorded attack from Mexican gray wolves. Ever.

Scott DeBruyne
Scott DeBruyne

By your resoning, we should outlaw guns, and make pet dogs illegal.   About 500 children a year are killed by guns, and there were 18 children killed by dogs in 2012.  In the past 50 years there have been only a handfull of wolf deaths in North America and a lot of those were from rabid animals or wolves kept as pets. 

Wayne Wilkins
Wayne Wilkins

@Jim G. I lived in Lake Tahoe for 25 yrs. back in the late 90's a few Coyote attacks did occur behind Caesars Casino. There are tons of Black Bears that get into the garbage cans at night but that's a 0 resaon to get rid of them! Humans are the problem not them! We've INVADED their native areas and are the real threat. In fact I had Raccons in my back yard all the time. I use to step out at night and turn on a flashlight to see the Coyote's eyes light up in the beam. So in 25 yrs. there I never had any problem... I fished and hiked that whole area and never a problem. But humans, problems all the time!!!!!!!!! Why don't you put up the number of humans being killed by humans in all the years? Far out number one child by a Coyote.

In fact if you want to check my story, I use to own the first Fly Fishing Shop there. Go in all the Casino's and ask the older workers there about Wayne Wilkins. My shop was on Edgewood Circle at Al Tahoe and Hwy. 50

I've also wondered around Eastern North Carolina where the Red Wolf is and the only problem there is the Navy trying to build an air base right in the middle of the Red Wolf area. They are just as endangered.

Luke Geoghegan
Luke Geoghegan

@Jim G. Yes, kill them all. The world needs more entitled idiots and less wild animals. 

C J
C J

@Jim G.  So, by your logic, anything that could potentially harm a child should be eradicated.  Let's kill all the sharks because children go in the ocean right?   I've had mountain lions, coyotes, bobcats, and bears on my property Jim.  I also have kids that live near my property.  Should they all be exterminated?  You seem to be a pretty fearful person.  I'm glad I'm not like that because it would suck to go through life like that. 

Lewis Regner-Redux
Lewis Regner-Redux

@C J It's a clear case to me of a zealous group of (rightly or wrongly) concerned people, inadvertently using a favorite of the histrionic lunatic liberal's favorite tactics, now turned right back against them. And so now they're crying like little babies with diapers as full of crap as they are. Sucks to be them, doesn't it!

Bill Rulon-Miller
Bill Rulon-Miller

@Swiftright Right Also, if you have no horse in this race, why are you commenting at all, especially when it is clear that you have no knowledge of the subject at hand?

Bill Rulon-Miller
Bill Rulon-Miller

@Swiftright Right Actually, an 8 year old could be taught to defend him/herself against a wolf, especially the smaller Mexican variety, pretty efficiently and more than one child will probably make it so a wolf will never even consider getting close. There has never been a recorded fatality from a wolf attack in the Southwestern U.S. at least not after 1850

RC Lee
RC Lee

@Swiftright Right Reasonable prudence is a good idea. You wouldn't leave your 8 year old in a park alone with a bunch of dirty old men. You probably shouldn't do so around any wildlife! People who choose to live near wildlife need to respect their space, which means not creating a situation that puts a kid at risk.

Bill Rulon-Miller
Bill Rulon-Miller

@Taylor Birkelo @Dean Steppe For the most part you are right. Sometimes coyotes will hunt in loosely assembled packs but by and large they usually hunt either alone or in pairs and only pairs have been known to show aggression towards humans. I suspect that posters like Linda Liberty are shills for special interest groups opposed to the well being of wildlife at the cost of any kind of short term profit and is specifically targeting wolves because they are a "hot button issue". Not a single thing about wolves they have said is true thus far and they seem to have trouble telling coyotes from wolves and northern gray wolves with wolves from the southwest.

RC Lee
RC Lee

@C J @Jim G. I suspect a lot of the fear stems from lack of experience in the outdoors, and/or simple lack of respect for other species. For example, I used to work and camp in Southeast Alaska, and would see up to 10 very large Alaskan brown bears up close per day. I've also been close to wolves, cougars, moose, lions, water buffalo, etc. In the case of large game, I was sometimes armed, but usually not. People who are afraid of wildlife need to spend more time out there- they are missing out on transcendent experiences because of their fear, and the animals are suffering because of it. 

Bill Rulon-Miller
Bill Rulon-Miller

@Lewis Regner-Redux @C J The problem is that people are turning this into a B.S. conservative vs. liberal issue and it really, really shouldn't be. Now we have far too many that have no knowledge or even any real care about this subject whatsoever trying to argue about it and actually influence what is supposed to be a politically neutral policy.

Taylor Birkelo
Taylor Birkelo

@Lewis Regner-Redux @C J Yeah but we can see their getting under your skin more than you can handle and they are just being fair, Show how diluted conservatives minds are to reality and to think beyond themselves

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