What happened at Kolmården zoo – 2012

(Facebook: Animal Zoolution, 19.2.2016)

By Runar C. Næss:

Captive wolves killed a 30-year-old zookeeper at Kolmarden Zoo, Sweden on June 17, 2012. There were eight 3-year-old male wolves in the enclosure and the female zookeeper knew them well. She bottle-fed them as pups and the wolves are well-socialized to humans. 

The 30-year-old zookeeper entered the enclosure alone to spend time with the wolves, after a time of “difficult relations with the wolves”. Police investigation shows that she was killed immediately once inside the enclosure and dragged to where she was found later in the day. She carried a private phone in her pocket, but it was not used during the accident.

Autopsy showed no sign of health problems, but she had complained about headaches on several occasions prior to the accident. There is no question about the facts in this matter. None of the wolves were killed after the accident, but all human contact was stopped.


Why did it happen?

The answer to “why” is slightly complex, but not complicated. I will attempt to explain the larger pieces of the puzzle in this article. I base my answer on a 3-year-long investigation by the Swedish Police (1400 documents), my 20-year experience of working with and learning about human-socialized captive wolves and my 15 years of visiting with the wolves and staff at Kolmården zoo.

Kolmarden zoo had socialized wolves for many years with relatively few problems. Traditionally the zookeepers working with the wolves were only a few, they were all male and had “old school” dog training as a reference for handling the wolves. That may work fine if you are self-confident and large enough to intimidate the wolves with your size and aggression.  The bigger the person the less likely it is that a wolf will do an all-out attack.

Since 2007 however, zookeepers working with the wolves where all females (i.e. smaller), with only one (male) exception. The accident has nothing to do with gender, mind you – only the fact that women on average are smaller than men.  

More importantly: they got little to no training in wolf management & handling, except that they were told they where the “Alpha” of the wolf pack and where to “dominate the wolves mentally & physically at any cost”.  So they did – at great cost!

From the 21 zookeepers that started working with the wolves during 2007-2009, 17 of them quit within the first year or so. Some were driven out by the wolves, some quit from fear or frustration. All describe the work as “chaotic” and that “they got no instructions or support from the management”. Physical conflicts with the wolves were common-place and the wolves grew increasingly “tired” of the zookeepers. Some clear signs of this were:

• The wolves’ greeting of the keepers as they came in became less frequent, to the point where some days no wolves would come to greet the zookeepers.

 Zoo uniform took on a role as something for the wolves to avoid. Vulnerable visitors were dressed in zoo-uniform to keep the wolves away from them, not for the wolves to be less scared of the stranger, as with many other socialized wolves.

 The wolves got increasingly “hand-shy” (scared of hands), resulting in numerous biting of hands. The zoo’s veterinarian would stitch up & bandage the injured zookeepers. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3ze...


 There where elevated levels of stress and intraspecific (between wolves) aggression within the all-male wolf-group. Redirected aggression and high levels of arousal are well-known to cause problems in human-animal relationships.


Why all the conflicts?

One (of many) article in the Swedish newspaper “Aftonbladet” illustrates how the popular product of “Bringing people in to meet with socialized wolves” became too overwhelming and got out of control – to the point where zookeepers themselves “gave up” trying to control the wolves:   http://www.aftonbladet.se/nyheter/a...

Groups of 15+ people, led by two zookeepers, would go into the enclosure to meet with the wolves almost daily, sometimes twice a day. There is nothing wrong with bringing people in with human-socialized wolves – the wolves like that. However – wolves will always be wolves and they will always try to steal any object they can get their mouth on. That is the nature of wolves. Avoiding this natural and strongly motivated wolf-behavior was the job of the zookeepers. This is not an easy task, even with the right tools of distraction, positive reinforcement training of incompatible behaviors, etc. – it can be quite a challenge. Using weak tools like man-handling and punishment – like they did in Kolmården – can make it downright impossible. This is (in short) where the conflict started and the relationship between zookeepers and wolves began to deteriorate: zookeepers trying to keep wolves from robbing the paying guests.

At one point, zookeepers capitulate and adapt the stand of telling guests in trouble: «You just became the wolf’s new toy». That only gave the wolves more opportunities and more time to steal and pull on guests, getting more success and thereby increasing the behavior. Reaction and “retaliations” from zookeepers to regain control over misbehaving wolves may have become fewer, but obviously became tougher. We are now in a downward spiral, where the human caretakers go from that of “partner” to that of “enemy”  in their relationshipth with the wolves – as described by “Umwelt theory”.

At no point do I suggest that the zookeepers at Kolmården are anything but well-educated, highly-motivated caretakers of all their animals. Handling socialized wolves, however, is not part of any zookeeper’s education and should have been provided by the zoo additionally.    By not doing so, they put the zookeepers in harm’s way.


Five major mistakes leading to the attack at Kolmården zoo:

1. The Money

It is not surprising that zoo owners want more money – we all know that the zoo is in the business of making money. The management however (all highly qualified zoologists & biologists), sacrificed safety of the zookeepers and welfare of the wolves - for the shareholder’s monetary gain, by:

• Increasing the “workload” of the most profitable (socialized) wolves

• Providing no formal training for the zookeepers

• Allowing the zookeepers to go in the wolf enclosure alone (instead of applying the “minimum two zookeepers rule”)

All these choices generated more money for the zoo and all contributed to the fatal attack in 2012. Saying that the professional management should have known (wolf behavior etc.) better is an understatement, but when all the smoke has cleared – it was all about making more money off the wolves.


2. The “Bubble”

Not connecting with the outside world to seek knowledge & information about socialized wolves was arrogant and foolish. The management consist of highly educated biologists & zoologists, who later admitted; “I did not understand the risks” and “in all the years I have worked with wolves, I never once thought they could kill a human”. Fair enough, but this illustrates the danger of simply trusting academic background or your own “inner circle” as sufficient source of knowledge, when interacting with large predators.



3. Wolf Management

Two major mistakes were significant here:

• Application of a flawed, outdated and dangerous “dominance theory”, where untrained zookeepers were told they had to dominate and “win over the wolves” at all cost. It was said that the keepers were part of the wolves’ hierarchy and strength was used to punish wolves that did not obey human rules and have the wolves submit to the zookeepers. It was never considered that the wolves might not tolerate this practice. Nor was it realized that the “dominance theory” in this context is wrong and dangerous.

• The use of aversive methods (punishment) and confrontational training techniques as key means of behavior modification – a well-known “cousin” of the “dominance theory”.

Here is a pre-2007 example of this, described by an eye-witness:

“At one point the Alfa stole a beanie from one of us visitors and the caretaker had to take it back and establish hierarchy - it got a bit scary. The guy was 190cm tall and well built. Viper-fast he grabbed the 60 kg Alfa by the neck and back fur and lifted him from the ground which of course made him growl and snap at the caretaker with his bared teeth. Needless to say everyone stood up in 0.1 second with adrenaline pumping from the sudden aggression. It was over just as quickly and everyone returned to being petting stations but slightly more cautious ones.” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=041...

And here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fin...

This kind of attack on a wolf by a human (inflicting pain & fear) is what gradually caused the young wolves (born 2009) to fear their caretakers more and more until one day, at 3 years of age – they had had enough. Intimidation by size & brutal strength no longer being a factor with the new generation of zookeepers, it could have been any one of them. They were all at risk – as proven by the two different attacks on two different zookeepers.


4. Lack of realistic Risk assessment & Safety evaluation

a) The wolves all weight about 50 kg (110 lbs), each of them capable of taking down & killing a small moose on their own. Wolves are wild animals & predators. There were eight wolves, 400 kg (880 lbs) of wolf, in the enclosure.  The deceased zookeeper was  160 cm (just under 5 ft. 3”) tall and weighed 55 kg (121 lbs). She was alone. Gender is irrelevant here, but size is not (totally). How can anyone think that this is a “no risk situation”?!

b) The rule for zookeepers when entering the wolf enclosure was to leave their phone outside! The argument being that the wolves would steal it and that it was an “unnatural element in the enclosure”. (The paying customers that where brought in with cameras around their necks and phones in their pockets were all very natural? I think not.)

c) Although it used to be that two zookeepers would go together when visiting the wolves, this (unofficial) rule was at some point deemed pointless (i.e. not economical) and one zookeeper was now allowed to go in alone with the wolves at any time. In the years leading up to the fatal accident it was not only allowed, but encouraged, due to a deteriorating relationship between wolves and zookeepers.  Some may think a deteriorating relationship with a large predator would call for extra safety measures, but that was not the case at Kolmarden.

d) Ignoring obvious warning signals from animals and humans alike was almost a religion at Kolmarden. This can be traced back to “arrogance” or it can be called ignorance. The Court states “Ignorance does not diminish responsibility” and though arrogance is not illegal, it is a well-known killer.


5. Final, fatal mistake:                                                                                                          

The rehearsal in 2011: A similar attack, that could well have been fatal, happened a year earlier (May 2011).  Another zookeeper was circled and attacked by the wolves, after first being bitten by one wolf immediately after entering the enclosure, then again (by another wolf) after sitting down in the enclosure. Both times, she grabbed the wolves by the scruff to punish them. The second time she grabbed a wolf, all the wolves changed and started circling her – looking for an opening to attack. 

We know from her incident-report that she had an opportunity to get out of the enclosure at an early stage of the attack while the wolves where distracted, but reconsidered and actually went farther into the enclosure to continue the “fight”! Why?

She remembered her training that said: “Never back down or you will be run out of the pack”. So she refused to “back down” even though she was scared and clearly under attack by nine 2-year old wolves. Only when the attack resumed and escalated did she realize she could not win and started fearing for her life. She had no radio & no phone! Reappearance of the distraction gave her a new opening to escape, through a side gate – fighting off the wolves all the way. The woman managed to escape the enclosure during that second distraction, but was never able to work with the wolves again. She estimated the attack to have lasted over 30 minutes. 

Kolmården implemented no changes in risk assessment, safety or handling of the wolves after learning about this attack in 2011. In fact:

• The incident was frowned upon and covered up (even by some colleagues) and the zookeeper’s account of the wolf-attack was not taken seriously by management. After learning about the attack, they actually decided: “no changes were necessary”.

• All zoos have contingency-plans and lists of their dangerous animals. Wolves were not part of any dangerous animal list at Kolmården zoo. 


Final thoughts

The most fatal safety-mistake by Kolmården, was the failure to always commit a minimum of two people when entering the wolf-enclosure.

If any one wolf handling-mistake can be said to be “more fatal” than another, it is the fact that zookeepers were instructed to physically punish and fight with the wolves and to “never lose a challenge or fight with a wolf”. It was said that it would cause the zookeeper to lose her “Alpha-status” with the wolves and she would not be able to control them anymore (i.e. she would lose her job). Because of the well-documented incident in 2011 (above), it is safe to assume that the victim on June 17. 2012 also fought back, just as her training dictated – instead of being passive and retreat, when she was challenged or attacked by the very same wolves.

However, the wolves were a year older and the relationship between wolves and zookeepers had further deteriorated. There was probably very little warning and very little time to react to the first attacking wolf. Although the gate was only 4 meters (13 ft) behind her, she never reached it – or never reached for it. Autopsy and police-investigation indicate that death came quickly, although her body was not found until approximately 2 hours later. Although some post-predatory behaviors (guarding etc.) where seen when recovering the body, the attack was clearly a result of (mutual) social aggression and not predatory.

This fatal accident is really “The Perfect Storm” of captive wolf management, where many of the mistakes that can be made all come together at the same time & place.

The case will go to trial in the Swedish Court this year (2016). Kolmården zoo has been charged with negligence and causing the death of an employee.  Chief Zoologist at the time has been charged with the same.

That the zoo was responsible for the death of this 30-year-old zookeeper is unquestionable in my mind, but “Legal responsibility” is up to the Court to decide. I am indifferent, as it changes nothing about the past and little about the future.

My intention is, that as many zookeepers and animal professionals as possible can learn from this accident.  Learn & understand what went wrong and why. It had nothing to do with wolves and everything to do with people & money. It certainly had nothing to do with the young zookeeper (R.I.P.).


PS: It is the family’s wish that the deceased name be withheld.


Recommended reading:

Barnard, Christopher J. 2004. Animal Behaviour: Mechanism, Development, Function and Evolution. Harlow: Pearson Education Limited.

Beaver, Bonnie V. G. 1999. Canine Behavior: A Guide for Veterinarians. College Station: W.B. Saunders Company.

Carlstead, Kathy 2009. A comparative approach to the study of keeper-animal relationships in the zoo. Zoo Biology 28 (6): 589–608.

Handelman, Barbara H. 2008. Canine Behavior: A Photo Illustrated Handbook. Wenatchee: Dogwise.

Hediger, Heini 1950. Wild Animals in Captivity. London: Butterworths Scientific Publications.

― 1968. The Psychology and Behaviour of Animals in Zoos and Circuses. New York: Dover Publications.

Hosey, Geoff R; Melfi, Vicky A; Pankhurst, Sheila J. 2009. Zoo Animals: Behaviour, Management and Welfare. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Kiiroja, Laura 2014. The zoosemiotics of socialization: case-study in socializing Red Fox (Vulpes vulpes) in Tangen Animal Park, Norway. [Master’s thesis]. Tartu: University of Tartu Department of Semiotics.

Kull, Kalevi; Torop, Peeter 2003. Biotranslation: translation between umwelten. In: Petrilli, Susan (ed.) Translation Translation. Amsterdam: Rodopi, 313-328. Reprinted in: Maran, Timo; Martinelli, Dario; Turovski, Aleksei (eds.). 2011. Readings in Zoosemiotics, 411-425. Berlin: De Gruyter Mouton.

McDougall, Peter T; Réale, Denis; Sol, Daniel; Reader, Simon M. 2006. Wildlife conservation and animal temperament: causes and consequences of evolutionary change for captive, reintroduced and wild populations. Animal Conservation 9: 39-48.

Ramirez, Ken T. 1999. Animal Training: Successful Animal Management Through Positive Reinforcement. Chicago: Shedd Aquarium.

Pryor, Karen 1999 (1984). Don’t Shoot the Dog! The New Art of Teaching and Training. New York: Bantam Books.

Tønnessen, Morten 2009. Umwelt transitions: Uexküll and environmental change. Biosemiotics 2 (1): 47–64.

― 2011. Umwelt transition and Uexküllian phenomenology. An ecosemiotic analysis of Norwegian wolf management. [Doctoral dissertation]. Tartu: University of Tartu Department of Semiotics.

Uexküll, Jakob von 1982. The meaning-carrier. The theory of the composition of nature. The Theory of Meaning. Semiotica 42 (1): 26-33, 52-59. Reprinted in: Maran, Timo; Martinelli, Dario; Turovski, Aleksei (eds.). 2011. Readings in Zoosemiotics, 61-76. Berlin: De Gruyter Mouton.

Wenner, Adrian M. 1969. The study of animal communication: An overview. In: Sebeok, Thomas A. and Ramsey, Alexandra (eds.). Approaches to Animal Communication, 232-243. Mouton: The Hague. Reprinted in: Maran, Timo; Martinelli, Dario; Turovski, Aleksei (eds.). 2011. Readings in Zoosemiotics, 111-122. Berlin: De Gruyter Mouton.

Yin, Sophia 2007. Dominance Versus Leadership. CompediumVet.com 7: 414-417.