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John Lamb, Published January 31 2012

‘The Grey’ getting Howls of disapproval

FARGO - Liam Neeson’s new man-vs.-nature thriller, “The Grey,” is a hit with fans and critics, earning about $20 million in its opening weekend and garnering a favorable 78 percent approval rating at the online review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes.

But the story of seven misfit oilmen struggling to survive a plane crash in the Alaskan wilderness, raging winter weather and a pack of man-eating wolves is drawing howls of disapproval from one group – people who know something about wolves.

“They were portrayed very inaccurately,” says Nicole Lee, who works with the gray wolves at the Red River Zoo.

Lee wasn’t exactly gnashing her teeth during a screening Friday afternoon, but she was taking notes throughout the nearly two-hour movie.

“I find it a little frustrating because we’ve come so far in educating people on predators like wolves, who have been misunderstood for years and this movie was a step backward,” Lee says. “It’s not to say wolves are friendly, cuddly dogs. They’re not. They are predators, carnivores. But they don’t go after people.”

Her problems with the film start about the same time the characters start having trouble with the wolves.

After the crash, the survivors gather around a fire. When Neeson’s character, Ottway, discovers the pack of wolves watching them just feet away, he urges the other men to stand together, don’t run and stare back.

“A lot of animals feel threatened when you stare directly at them,” Lee says. “They might feel it as a challenge, so it wasn’t the smartest thing to do.”

Maybe Neeson just wanted to show what a dashing figure he is by firelight.

While wolves are curious by nature and may be drawn to a fire, they would keep a safe distance from that situation because it would be strange and new.

“Wolves are shy around people,” she says. “In real life, you don’t have to do a whole lot to scare off a curious wolf.”

She says usually a loud noise, throwing a rock or just looking big will be enough to shoo away a wolf.

“In reality, wild wolves are shy and elusive,” the Wolf Conservation Center says on its website. “A person in wolf country has a greater chance of being hit by lightning ... than being injured by a wolf.”

Wolves aren’t man-eaters, Lee says, so people really don’t need to worry.

“They are predators. They are carnivores. They do eat other animals, but humans are not part of their diet,” she says. “They hunt things on four legs, so they don’t see us as natural prey.”

She added, however, that wolves and other predators would scavenge a crash plane site to feed off the dead.

While they may eat the dead, the wolves wouldn’t likely mourn and seek vengeance for the death of one of their own.

In “The Grey” one aggressive wolf is killed by the men, who then roast the body and eat it. (In real life, PETA and animal activists are upset that the actors ate actual wolf meat.) One man even cuts off the wolf’s head, then throws it into the woods yelling at the other howlers. His actions seem to agitate the remaining pack.

“They don’t seek revenge. They’re not out to get (someone),” Lee says of wolves.

Neeson’s character implies the wolves are after them because the men are intruders on canis lupus turf and the home-howlers will hunt within a 30-mile range of the den.

Which is one of the few things Lee agrees with – kind of.

“The only thing they got accurate that I got out of it was the territory size,” she says.

But the notion of a den being a home base is, again, inaccurate.

“Wolves don’t generally congregate in a den,” she said. “They are not sedentary.”

Lee cites a 2002 report, “A Case History of Wolf-Human Encounters in Alaska,” that found only 49 instances of wolf aggression toward humans – though not necessarily attacks – since 1942

“It’s important to realize it’s a movie. It’s not a good portrayal of wolf behavior or wolf/human interaction,” Lee says. “If you want an accurate view of wolves, come to one of the wolf programs at the zoo.”

Readers can reach Forum reporter John Lamb at (701) 241-5533