Fear of wolves is roiling Germany once again

German police reached the accident to find what news stories would describe as a scene from a horror show: Seven horses, huddled on a small, dark, highway, had been ripped to pieces by two speeding cars. The drivers had been badly injured. Investigators found pieces of auto wreckage and horseflesh scattered around the site.

But the reason the December car wreck remained national news for weeks had only a little bit to do with the carnage. Instead, what’s made the accident the talk of Germany is its suspected cause: wolves, which reportedly spooked the horses into the paths of the oncoming cars.

It’s difficult to capture the fear and excitement that wolves generate in this country. The predator has played a role in many a German fairy tale, and for about 150 years it was considered extinct in Germany, hunted down and disposed of.

Now, however, wolves have made a comeback, growing over the past 20 years to a stable population of 35 packs, about 150 wolves in all. That’s set off a furor over whether Germany is big enough for both people and wolves. They’ve made regular headlines, been the subject of numerous television news programs and have even been featured on Germany’s popular police drama “Tatort.”

If the past is prologue, the future for wolves is not rosy.

Critics maintain that Germany is too densely populated for a large, wild carnivore to be allowed to roam freely. Fans and scientists maintain they’re simply part of the natural order, and signs of an ecosystem in need of a predator.

The December accident shows how far apart the two camps are. The Hunters Association of Saxony says wolves caused the horses to flee their pen and head onto the road. “With great concern we are following the uncontrolled spread of the wolf,” the organization wrote to the Interior Ministry.

Others have strong doubts that wolves were in any way involved. They note that no evidence of a wolf presence was found at the scene.

It’s hardly the first time Germans have voiced such fears. One need look no further than Grimm Brothers tales such as “Little Red Cap” _ the Grimm version of “Little Red Riding Hood” _ and “The Wolf and the Seven Young Kids.” In those tales, the wolf was depicted as voracious and dangerous.

And they don’t end well, for the wolves. In both those tales, the wolf was killed.

How seriously the Germans took the wolf threat was evident about the time those stories were published. In the early 19th century, for example, Germans organized a wolf hunt on the Rhine River: 69 riders on horseback and 385 hunters on foot, aided by 3,250 “drivers,” who crashed through the wilderness pushing the wolves before them to the hunters.

Each time a region cleansed itself of the lupine threat, hunters erected a “Wolfstein” or a tombstone in the field where the last one was killed, and wrote on it who killed the animal and when. Officially, the “Tiger of Sabrodt” was the last wolf killed in Germany, in 1904, but they’d been considered extinct in the country since before the original unification of Germany in 1871.

Hermann Ansorge studies wolves as the head zoologist at Goerlitz Senckenberg Natural History Museum. Sadly, he said, the wolves he studies aren’t nearly so dramatic as those creating public fear and political panic. For instance, his office studies wolf poop to determine what the creatures eat.

The results: Fifty-two percent of the diet is tiny roe deer, 25 percent the larger red deer, 16 percent is wild pig. Sheep, cattle, goats and house pets combined make up less than 1 percent of the diet.

“There is no human in the diet,” he said, smiling, then adding, seriously, “None.”

Christian Dueker, a representative of the museum, noted that the “wolf eats man” fears in Germany trace back to the Thirty Years War, which engulfed central Europe from 1618 to 1648. The dead, from hostilities and starvation, were so numerous that they became a source of food for carnivores, such as wolves.

Ansorge said he was neither pro- nor anti-wolf. What he is, he said, is pro-scientific fact and pro-research. And he said the story of the return of the wolf to Germany was fascinating.

Wolves returned after “die Wende” or, as Americans would call it, the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the socialist east. The eastern border, next to Poland, was the first point of return for the wolves. But while an occasional animal had been seen coming in from Poland during the last 50 years, East Germany allowed them to be hunted. The few that arrived were killed, researchers suspect.

After die Wende, East Germany found itself in the European Union, which bans wolf hunting. But it wasn’t just the end of wolf hunts that drew the animals. In the past 20 years, Germany has invested heavily in alternative energy, including ethanol. The grain fields raised to feed Germany’s energy needs also have led to a boom in the wildlife population.

“These fields were perfect for wild pigs and deer, among others,” Ansorge said. “Never in recorded German history have we had such a high wildlife density. For predators, like the wolves, once the hunting ban was imposed, dinner was served.”

It didn’t take long once the wolves were around for the conflict with humans to begin. In late April 2002, a shepherd left his sheep for the night. The next morning he woke to find the pasture soaked in blood. Twenty-seven sheep were gone, some completely; others had been ripped to pieces.

A few nights later, a neighbor watched what he described as a “blitzattacke,” or lightning attack. The wolfpack returned, and, before he could react, had killed six more sheep. Today a new flock is kept behind a highly charged electric fence, with a guard dog.

Indeed, farmers and hunters form the backbone of those who are critical of the impact of the wolves. Germany now subsidizes protective fences for those who are raising possible prey, and it offers payment for animals that wolves kill. Still, the rumors circulate: Sheep herds go sterile from fear. Wild pigs form mega-herds for protection, trampling and destroying whatever they touch. Horses stampede. House pets vanish.

The mouflon, they say, has vanished from Saxony (experts acknowledge this, but note that the mouflon, a wild big-horned sheep, was introduced to the area as game and needs its native mountain slopes to escape predators).

The hunters association’s letter claimed that “Saxony now has the highest wolf density anyplace worldwide.” Secretly, they say that when they see the creatures in the wild, they follow the “3S rule” (shoot, shovel under, be silent)

Vanessa Ludwig, a spokeswoman for the Saxony Wolf Management Plan, said the group’s claim was a bit of a stretch. The German wolf population has increased but isn’t yet even considered sustainable. Of the nation’s 35 packs, 15 are near her region, and the territories of three others surround it.

She noted that seeing a wolf is still very rare for those who don’t dedicate their days to searching for them. She said Germany’s wolves were studied pretty closely. In her region, the estimate is that wolves had a total of 100 pups from 2000 to 2010, about half of which are thought to have survived.

The landscape isn’t in danger of being filled with them anytime soon. The wildlife density isn’t declining, meaning the wolves still have more than enough game to eat. Ludwig explained that her job is to inform the public that there’s room for coexistence.

“We lived without the wolves for a very long time,” she said. “All we had left of them were all these scary stories. So now they return, and people don’t know what to expect. We just want people to get to know these fantastic animals. There’s more to them than we learned about in ‘Little Red Riding Hood.’ ”

Claudia Himmelreich contributed to this report.