On May 29th, a young wolf was shot dead on a police warrant in the town of Vehmaa in Western Finland. According to the police, the wolf was not behaving typical for the species which led to the decision to terminate that wolf. With the help of 3 experts, we have analyzed the case.
The statement of the police indicates that the wolf was seen three times:
- On Monday, April 21th, 2014 at 1800h, the wolf was seen moving between buildings and
- at 2000h on a field in some distance to tractors involved in field work.
- On Thursday, April 24th, 2014 at 0900h, the wolf was seen moving around a summer cottage at the beach of a lake.
The distance between the two places of sighting is about 6km. It was determined that the animal in question is a young wolf.
According to section 16 of the Finnish Police Law, the police has the right to capture or, as a last resort, kill an animal that poses an imminent danger to human life or health.
Police Inspector Vesa Pihajoki issued a warrant to terminate the wolf on April 28th, 2014 after consulting with Mikko Toivola, the district chief of the Wildlife Agency. Mr. Toivola concluded that the animal was not behaving typically for the species.
Susilauma asked statements from Inspector Pihajoki as well as from Mr. Toivola.
In his statement, Inspector Pihajoki confirmed the facts of the event. On the question which other options have been explored before deciding to terminate the wolf, Inspector Pihajoki's reply was that he did not attempt deterring the wolf because in another case with a different wolf, deterring was unsuccessful. The statement did not include any mentioning of capturing the wolf. When asked about that after receiving the statement, the County Police press officer refused to comment and stated that the original statement contained all relevant information. The statement also did not mention any kind of confrontation between the wolf and humans. All sightings were from a distance or from inside of buildings.
Mr. Toivola was asked about the reasons for his conclusion that the wolf was not behaving typically for the species. Additionally, he was asked about his qualifications. According to Mr. Toivola's statement, the wolf was behaving very differently from how wolves in the Varsinais-Suomi district usually do in acting "fearless". In his opinion, the wolf did not show reasonable fear of humans. Mr. Toivola added that he is a biologist with focus on ecology. His graduation paper was about the migration and nutritional habits of minks. Additionally, he pointed out that he is a breeder of hunting dogs for almost all his life and hence is qualified to evaluate the behavior of all canine animals.
Susilauma asked a number of experts about this case.
According to Prof. Heikki Kulla, professor for administrative law at the University of Turku, "as a last resort" means that all other possible options must always be explored first. Prof. Kulla also pointed to a parliamentary statement (HE 224/2010) about section 16 of the police law. According to that statement "as a last resort" means that the individual circumstances must be taken into account and that all other options must be sufficiently explored before the decision to terminate an animal is made.
During the filming of the documentary "Tyttö ja sudet - the girl and the wolves", the Susilauma team described the Vehmaa case to Frank Fass, director of the German Wolfcenter. The German Wolfcenter is specialized in public eduction about wolves. Additionally, methods and concepts for human-wolf-conflict solutions and life stock protection are developed there. Besides being director of the Wolfcenter, Mr. Fass trains wolf-consultants, human-wolf-conflict advisors and is regularly consulted by government authorities and lawmakers in Germany on wolf issues. In the subsequent interview, Mr. Fass told that in his opinion, the behavior of the Vehmaa wolf was completely normal. When asked, he confirmed that especially young wolves are very curious. Additionally, especially young wolves do not know what a house is or a tractor, nor do they understand that humans are inside of those. In his opinion, a young wolf stopping and curiously watching a tractor on a field is completely normal behavior which occurs frequently also in Germany, which currently has a wolf-population of over 350 individuals. When asked about Mr. Toivola's statement, Mr. Fass pointed out that wolf and dog, although relatives, have a very different behavior and the fact that a person is breeding hunting dogs does not qualify this person in any way to evaluate the behavior of wolves.
In addition to the previously mentioned experts, Susilauma also described the Vehmaa case to and requested a statement from Prof. Dr. Kurt Kotrschal. Prof. Kotrschal is the director of the Konrad Lorenz-Research Station of the University of Vienna as well as the director of the Wolf Science Center Austria. He holds three different academic degrees, has published over 100 peer-reviewed articles and handbooks in the last 10+ years, is a specialist for behavioral biology and researches - among other things - behavior and also cognitive abilities of wolves and dogs. He also is one of the foremost experts for wolf-behavior worldwide. In his statement to Susilauma, Prof. Kotrschal answered our questions as follows:
|Susilauma:||In your opinion, is it untypical for a young wolf to move around summer cottages, especially, does a young wolf have to know that those are inhabited by humans?|
|Prof. Kotrschal:||This kind of behavior is absolutely to be expected from a young wolf. Wolves are not only shy but also very curious. The wolf probably was a disperser [editor's note: a disperser is a young wolf which just left the parents].|
|Susilauma:||In your opinion, is it untypical for a young wolf to stop on a field to watch tractors?|
|Prof. Kotrschal:||Same as the previous question - that is completely normal exploration.|
|Susilauma:||How similar are wolves and dogs in their behavior?|
|Prof. Kotrschal:||The basic behavior is very similar as E. Zimen researched. However, with regards to challenges, the behavior is very different. Wolves are significantly more shy and careful but at the same time they are better in recognizing connections and they are more creative in finding solutions than dogs.|
|Susilauma:||In your opinion, is somebody who has been breeding hunting dogs for a long time qualified to evaluate the behavior of wild wolves due to his being a breeder?|
|Prof. Kotrschal:||Of course not! Even between different dog breeds are huge differences in exploratory behavior and reaction to challenges.|
|Susilauma:||In summary, based on the police report, how high would you estimate the actual danger for health and/or life of humans through the wolf in this case?|
|Prof. Kotrschal:||Practically zero, unless the wolf had rabies. [Editor's note: rabies is officially extinct in Finland]|
Prof. Kotrschal also stated later that in his opinion, based on the known facts, there was no factual justification for terminating this wolf.
The legal basis of the termination warrant in this case is at least questionable. At the very least, by not considering deterring the wolf based on a failure with another wolf, the police probably did not sufficiently take the individual circumstances of this case into account, as each wolf is an individual and might react differently. This is even more valid as - according to a statement, Susilauma received by email - members of Suomen Susi ry have offered to Inspector Pihajoki to help in a potential deterring operation free of charge. Given the fact that there has been no confrontation with humans, the situation also was not calling for an urgent decision. Additionally, given the protection status of the wolf, the police should have attempted - as the police law explicitly mentions - capturing the wolf and relocating it.
Much more obvious, however, is the the fact that this warrant had no factual justification. Deciding that a wolf would be a danger to human health and/or life after three sightings on two days without any kind of confrontation is absurd. As two independent international experts confirmed, there was no danger to be expected from this wolf. Additionally, Mr. Toivola's statement that he would be "qualified to evaluate the behavior of canine animals" due to his "being a breeder of hunting dogs for almost all his life", leaves severe doubts about his competence at least in wolf-matters. The question is also rather if the fact that he is a long-year hunting dog breeder itself might have been the true reason for him to give this negative statement which led to the termination warrant, considering the general aversion of hunters and hunting dog breeders against wolves in Finland.
All in all, this case is a textbook example for a fear-based decision contrary to a fact-based decision.