I was saddened to read of the loss of a number of household pets, apparently to a family of wolverines, in British Columbia over the past several months. According to articles, over 60 cats are missing and the deaths of at least two of these felines are confirmed to have been at the jaws of wolverines. My sympathies are with anyone who has lost a companion in Kitimat.
Like many people who are involved with wildlife work, I came to a love of animals through my own childhood pets. As ambassadors of the non-human world, pets play a vital role in building a sense of understanding and compassion for our wild neighbors. Pet owners, however, must take responsibility for their animals, both to prevent wildlife from being killed, and to keep their pets safe. In recent years, as fishers and coyotes have returned to the town in Massachusetts where I grew up, my parents have adopted an indoor-cats-only policy. This seems to be the wisest solution for everyone. Likewise, dogs should be kept leashed around wildlife, especially in areas where coyotes and wolves are known to live.
Human-wildlife conflict is always frustrating, and living a commitment to conservation is always a challenge. I arrived in Wyoming in 2008 to work on wolves, but was disillusioned by the degree of rancor over the species. Wolverines, I quickly realized, were a much nicer species to work on, because there was almost no conflict around them. I hope that the occasional upsurge in incidents like those in British Columbia doesn’t breed intolerance for a species that exists in such sparse numbers. Quotes in one article, expressing concern about children being attacked, and particularly about humans being ‘disembowled in a matter of minutes’ are probably over the top. Wolverines kill winter-weakened large ungulates and chase bears and wolves away from prey, but as far as I know, they haven’t been recorded actually killing a bear, as the mayor claims in the article. And I don’t know of any incident in which a wolverine has even attacked a human (defending themselves when backed into a corner doesn’t count) – let alone attempted to hunt one.
Nevertheless, as with pets, it pays to take precautions with your children, especially since wolverines are possessive of prey. Firstly, keep your pets inside as much as possible. Secondly, if the pets must be outside and your children are with the pets, make sure that your children understand that – as brutal a truth as this might be – they shouldn’t take on a wolverine if the wolverine has the pet and is intent on defending its food source. Living with wild neighbors isn’t always going to be easy, but the wildlife bears the brunt of the contact, in terms of habitat loss and direct and indirect mortality. Occasional losses in the other direction shouldn’t be taken as an excuse to declare a hysterical campaign against the species, and people living in wildlife habitat – children included – have to learn this. Again, my sympathies are with those who have lost pets in this and other wildlife incidents, and especially with children who love their animals. But we have to give wildlife the room it needs, and do what we can to minimize conflict.
Finally, at risk of sounding incredibly redundant, I reiterate: keep your pets indoors or under close watch. Wolverines return to habitual food sources – they patrol cliff bands from which wild goats regularly fall, they come back to live traps to check for more bait, they return to carcasses they’ve stashed under the snow during the winter, and they will certainly haunt a place where there’s an abundance of easy prey. Wolverines have huge territories and they patrol them widely, so they might disappear for a time – but that doesn’t mean the pets are safe; the wolverines will eventually drop by to check again for an easy meal. For everyone’s sake – make sure they don’t find it.