For more than two hundred years, Denmark has had no wolves. The year 1772 saw the last one killed. Loss of livestock and primal fear have made the wolf an unpopular animal in Europe. So imagine the interest when a wolf-like creature was spotted in western Jutland this fall, walking through a landscape not unlike the one you see above. The sighting brought wide media attention and a hasty campaign to photograph the animal. Speculation was widespread – was it a large dog, a real wolf, and was it alone?
The animal was found dead some weeks later. DNA analysis at Danmarks Tekniske Universitet revealed it was definitely a wolf, and was probably from a German population.
So how did this animal come to such a lonely end in a foreign land? The body was transported to the Zoologisk Museum in Copenhagen, where an autopsy was done. My office is just a few doors down from the dissection room at the museum, so I though I’d go and have a look. Outside the loading dock, one can find the remnants of other already-examined creatures – a grim waiting room.
Museums are odd places. The first day I inquired about visiting, I received an email stating “my curatorial assistant thinks that the wolf comes tomorrow and that they are slaughtering a hippo today”. But on the next day, the wolf had been autopsied before my afternoon visit. An email warned, “så I skal ikke forvente en nuttet, pelset krammebamse” – don’t expect a cute furry teddy bear. (Now is a good time to stop reading if you are squeamish)
The wolf was much larger than I expected – huge paws, and jaws big enough to fit a small person’s head. It was magnificent, in a tragic sort of way. The autopsy showed it had a growth on its neck (non-cancerous) that prevented it from eating, and eventually caused it to starve to death. Lone wolves are known to cover large distances when healthy, but perhaps this condition was the reason it came so far to an empty part of Denmark.
Samples of the teeth are being taken to determine the age of the wolf. You can see how healthy they look – starving is a poor way to die. I have never seen a living wolf in the wild but found it easy to imagine this one in better days, not abandoned to a cold table in the center of Copenhagen, but rather prowling the forest.
One wolf does not make a population, so the species is unlikely to see a return to Denmark in the near future. But the news stories about this wolf were mostly written with interest and curiosity, rather than with fear. Other Nordic countries have re-introduced the wolf, and re-wilding of many other large species is a topic being discussed in countries around the world. The challenges are large: landscapes must be wild enough to accomodate these animals, and humans and their livestock must feel safe enough to live alongside of them. And the response of an ecosystem to the introduction of a ‘new’ species can be difficult to predict. Much has changed, for example, since the wolf has been absent from Denmark. It is hard to say what the future will bring. But this incident suggests that there may yet be public support for such a change!