Kimberley French/Open Road Films/AP
In this film image released by Open Road Films, actor Liam Neeson is shown in a scene from "The Grey."

'The Grey': Is film's portrayal of wolves as man-killers too dramatic?

Most North American wolves are exceedingly shy. But given starvation, territorial incursions and habituation with humans, attacks can – and do – happen. Wolf attack scenes in 'The Grey' nevertheless have drawn criticisms from animal rights groups.

Any casual reader of Jack London will get a stab of recognition from the portrayal in the movie “The Grey” of battered survivors defending with flaming torches against snarling, snapping wolves.

After all, the opening stanza of Mr. London's classic “White Fang” details the struggle of two frontiersmen against a hungry pack of wolves, using some of the same savage imagery that confronts “The Grey” star Liam Neeson in the movie, which opens today.

But is it a fair portrayal?

RECOMMENDED: Delisting of wolves raises hackles

To be sure, the perception of wolves as man-killers goes back millennia, representing perhaps humankind's most primal fear: becoming prey.

But animal rights activists, including People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), have called for a boycott of the movie, saying the portrayal is misguided and couldn't come at a worst time: when packs of wolves, reintroduced by federal wildlife biologists, are desperately trying to regain footholds across some of America's northern reaches. The movie's premiere comes as a radio-collared wild wolf known as OR-7 has drawn the attention of many fans as wildlife officials track it from Idaho through Oregon and into northern California.

The Grey portrays these intelligent, family-oriented animals the same way in which Jaws portrays sharks,” PETA writes in a statement. “The writers paint a pack of wolves living in the Alaskan wilderness as bloodthirsty monsters, intent on killing every survivor of a plane crash by tearing each person limb from limb. Yet wolves aren't aggressive animals, and as Maggie Howell, the managing director of America's Wolf Conservation Center, says, 'Wolves don't hunt humans—they actually shy away from them.'”

PETA also took offense that the filmmakers, talent and crew ate wolf meat as part of a bonding ritual as they tackled the filming.

For their part, the filmmakers say they meant to build drama, not animosity towards wild canines that once roamed nearly all corners of the globe, but have dwindled dramatically in numbers as they've been hunted and squeezed into restricted territories

"I don't think the film will make people fear wolves, but I'd like to make them respect wolves and by extension, nature itself more,” writer/director Joe Carnahan tells the Greenspace blog at the Los Angeles Times. “I'd like the movie to remind people that we're just visitors here."

While thousands of Europeans were killed by wolves between the 1500s and 1800s, the number dwindled to 21 reported fatal wolf attacks since 2000. Most have been in rural Russia, but recent attacks also include one wolf-related death in Saskatchewan, Canada, and one in Alaska -- the 2010 mauling death of teacher Candice Berner, who was out jogging near Chignik Lake, Alaska.

Historically, North American wolves are more reluctant to approach humans than in Europe. The likely reason is that American settlers were usually armed, so wolves, as a group, learned to avoid them. In Europe, usually only the elites had guns, meaning wolves had less to fear.

Today, territorial threats and starvation are likely the two chief reasons for wolf attacks, but some researchers posit that wild wolves can, in fact, begin to explore humans as prey under certain other conditions.

“Wolves will explore humans as alternative prey, even if there's no food shortage, if they continually come in close contact with humans and habituate,” writes Valerius Geist, an environmental science professor at the University of Calgary, in a recent research paper.

Mr. Geist and others have posited that so-called “inefficient hunting,” essentially pestering, of wolf packs is the most surefire protection against wolves becoming interested in attacking humans. But drawing on his own experience in the field, Geist's advice seems to mirror the aggressive stance taken by Mr. Neeson's character as he marshals a group of plane crash victims in “The Grey.”

“It is not the act of hunting or shooting that makes wolves ... wary, but the confident, self-assured manners of armed persons,” he writes, adding, “What must be avoided in the presence of wolves is running away, stumbling, limping, as well as any sign of weakness. Making and keeping up eye contact is essential.”

It's not clear from the previews if all the crash survivors in "The Grey" got that memo.

RECOMMENDED: Delisting of wolves raises hackles

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