Many authors have pointed out that
scavenging on human bodies may have accustomed wolves to eating human flesh,
Clarke among them. This mechanism is so well known to play an important role in
wolves' getting used to eating livestock that in the 1980s livestock breeders in
certain states of the USA who left carcasses lying around in the field were not
reimbursed for wolf depredation.
So-called "sieges by wolves" of human
settlements in times of famine correspond to situations in which human carrion
must have been abundant, people weak and other food scarce. This scarcity of
other food rendered garbage heaps even more important food resources than they
already were and still are for many European wolves, who therefore gathered
around towns, villages and hamlets.
Humans were perhaps not as abundant,
but often as defenceless as their sheep in Europe through the middle ages and
into the 19th century. It would not seem more than logical that
wolves should have exploited this food resource. Other predators certainly do
and the myth of no wolves ever attacking or eating humans has sufficiently dealt
with in the only literature source I shall list that is not directly about the
Beast : Mech and Boitani.
Anthropophagous "Beasts" have
repeatedly shown quite normal predatory behaviour, apart from the unconventional
choice of prey species. Indeed, they attack mostly the weaker and isolated
individuals. On a total of slightly over a hundred recorded victims, the Beast
of Gévaudan killed only one adult man, all the other ones being women and
children. A "beast" around Kessel, in the province of Limburg in The
Netherlands, killed exclusively children (11 in total) in 1810 and 1811. Both
"our" beast and the latter one detached the heads from certain victims.
The Beast of the Gévaudan would seem
to have had a predilection for the neck, the shoulders and the breast. Yet it
was also reported to come back to its victims when it could and one body was
eaten so entirely that the priest refused to draw up the sepulture certificate.
This resembles to normal predatory behaviour. The Kessel beast's peculiarity was
that it did not eat its victims' bowels, usually a prized delicacy among
predators. In both cases, being chased away from their victims and the latter
being taken away would logically incite them to kill more individuals. In a
natural situation, part of a carcass is always lost to scavengers such as the
fox and the vulture, but more of it can be used by the initial predator.
Castres, after describing the scarcity
of the human population of the Gévaudan region, relates (translation Johan
"The preceding years have been
particularly harsh, there have been the inevitable famines, as people have
always known them, although they are less severe than they have sometimes been ;
people die of starvation and cold, but these are mostly poor wretches, tramps.
On the other hand, the cattle have suffered dearly from diseases. Animals have
died by the thousands, a school has even been founded to train veterinarians to
fight them." (the first veterinarian academy in France, in Lyon; JT).
"But this hasn't kept the herds from
diminishing severely. The sheep have been replaced by one or two cows; the
village's animals are hardly pastured together anymore (most likely for fear of
contamination; JT), the little shepherds disperse into the mountains, each ones
busies himself with his beasts".
Vulnerability of flocks
The livestock left are thus more
susceptible to attacks and so are their shepherds. A study of the relationships
between husbandry methods and sheep losses to canine predators in Kansas showed
that herds of less than 50 head were found to have a rate of loss nearly twice
as high as those of 300 and over. Moreover, cows are more difficult prey for
wolves than sheep.
Livestock being scarce, peasants
possibly hunted (poached) on a larger scale, so that the game population may
have been at a low as well.
Human and livestock carrion has
abounded for some time, especially in winter, as had the all-but-dead poor, and
otherwise food was scarce for all.
In other words, the situation is one
of ecological stress, and the factors which may lead a predator to venture into
this unusual feeding niche, drawing upon humans as a food resource, are there.
The affair of the Beast officially
starts in june 1764. Attacks had been reported earlier, but poor communication
had kept these from being connected with one another. It has, therefore,
probably really started in spring, when the winter stock of tramps dead or dying
of cold or hunger or both is depleted. These tramps would hardly have been
reported as attack cases and registered in the parish records if their
disappearance were noticed at all. With the end of the cold season a predator
specialized in this type of quarry would have had to look elsewhere for food.
Tender youth, tough luck
Livestock, mostly in their stables in
winter, started roaming the mountainside again. With them their shepherds,
mostly children. Castres quotes Antoine de Beauterne (one of a sequence of
officials dispatched to the area by the King to organize the chase of the Beast)
as saying that people were still severely undernourished, to the point where
peasants recruited for the battues fainted repeatedly. What to think of the
infant shepherds the Beast encountered?
They were the most logical prey for a
predator which for one reason or another had got the taste of human flesh. Both
animals killed as "the beast" were adults apparently in full health, so this
habit must have come about some way, my hypothesis being one of the
possibilities. Only one adult man was among the 100-odd victims, all the others
were children and women, nearly always attacked when they were alone.