We humans try to shape nature to our hearts’ content, and at the same time we attempt to provide space for nature to continue in its own ways. While we live in seemingly ever-expanding cities, we also try to recognize and acknowledge that all species have a right to live beside us. What and where do we set the limits though?

We provide natural reserves for flora, fauna and animals, linked together so no site is left on its own but that at least the last bit of our green world stays hopefully somehow connected. This we do for potentially either of two reasons. One, we believe all species have a certain right to freely live beside us, called abolitionism. This implies that animals have rights on their own and that we should (at least) avoid that they suffer. For example, dogs, man’s best friend, are often treated like family members. If one extends this attitude and right towards dogs, then there is little reason to argue against extending this right towards most or all other animals.

Two, we feel that biodiversity is necessary for our own survival, and since we have only a limited grasp of how biodiversity affects us it may be better for mankind to preserve as much biodiversity as possible simply to insure our own survival.

This, inevitably, leads to difficulties. You will want to inquire about mosquitos. Should they have the same rights? All of them? I mean, even the Dalai Lama acknowledged that he gets pretty annoyed by the little buggars. What about wasps in one’s baby’s sleeping room? And finally: What about wolves?

Wolves are making their comeback across Europe. They are migrating from Italy, France and Eastern Europe through Germany, have now been sighted in Belgium, Netherlands and very close to Luxembourg (Metz), too. Wolves, by law, are protected animals nearly everywhere in Europe.

But it is clear that people are not very happy about this ever increasing expansion of wolves. Some were even seen 15km from Berlin. People are scared when going into the forest knowing that wolves are around. Alfred Hitchcock once famously wrote that

“[f]ear isn’t so difficult to understand. After all, weren’t we all frightened as children? Nothing has changed since Little Red Riding Hood faced the big bad wolf. What frightens us today is exactly the same sort of thing that frightened us yesterday. It’s just a different wolf. This fright complex is rooted in every individual.”

And wolves are known to have attacked sheep or animal livestock on farms. True, farmers get compensated for this, but one doesn’t raise animals on a farm in order to go through the trouble of getting compensated for this loss every time a wolf comes past.

Furthermore, as the population of wolves is growing by around 6% annually (faster than GDP, take that politicians and learn!), it is inevitable that they will get into deeper conflict with humans. Men have hunted wolves since basically forever. The last wolf in Luxembourg was killed in 1893 by someone who maybe ironically was called Herr Wolff. There are some species who mankind feels that they simply provide a certain threat, or too much of a threat, to humans.

While I can definitely admit that I do not feel very comfortable with wolves running around in the forests where my children are playing, I also have to say that I am of the opinion that species in general have a certain moral right and that we should treat animals in general kindly and as equally as possible. So, how to weigh off this moral right and mankind’s fear?

There are – apparently – only few cases annually where wolves have killed or attacked humans. Thus the probability is rather low, (maybe 1 in several million) and much lower than e.g. being in a car crash (1 in 100). Given this low probability, should we perceive this as a sufficiently negligible possibility? What happens if really a person is attacked or killed in Europe by wolves? This will clearly change the perceived likelihood of being attacked and there will be many voices that scream out for a wolf hunt. But is such a low probability not nevertheless enough reason to accept the return of the wolves?

Still, would you have your kids roam around in the forest knowing that wolves are nearby? Is a forest supposed to stay a true wilderness zone or should we feel completely safe when entering it? How should we value the extra fear, which seems to be founded on a wrong understanding of the (subjective) probability of being attacked by wolves, but which is nevertheless there? Are there ways in which we can `direct’ the habit of these wolves in order to minimize the probability of attacks? How do we reduce the probability that wolves contract rabies and then attack humans? Apparently several people in Eastern European countries get attacked annually by wolves with rabies. And we can all easily acknowledge that it makes a difference if one is attacked by a wolf with rabies compared to a rabbit with rabies

Incidently, and very importantly, the Senckenberg Gesellschaft für Naturforschung (SGN) has a postdoc position on the topic “Society conflicts about wolves returning to Germany“. I think this is a really useful and important question, and the answer one gets regarding wolves should be extendable towards other types of larger animals, like bears.