GOERLITZ, Germany 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.
Now, however, wolves have made a comeback, growing over the last 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.