The Beast of Gevaudan: a zoological mystery?
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I published, in October 2014, with the help of Alain Bonet: "The Beast of Gévaudan, investigation into a state affair and a zoological enigma". The purpose of this work was a review and an inventory of our knowledge, authentic and verified, including the assertions held to be true and scientific by many researchers, accusers or defenders of wolves.
We have exposed the historical circumstances which have enabled us to affirm that the framework of this affair was above all the crisis of the Ancien Régime, a crisis without which it would undoubtedly never have had such a deep and lasting echo. Let us therefore concentrate on its purely zoological aspect.
What are wolves from?
Answer: wolves are the subject of careful study, of their biology, and their habits.
First remark: whatever the study, the book or the article devoted to the Beast, it is clear that very few authors concerned have taken the trouble to consult the scientific works of zoology in connection with the heading: "wolves". Apart from Jean-Marc Moriceau, no researcher, except at the margin, cites, for example, the work of Geneviève Carbone, the great wolf specialist in Europe. If the Beast of Gévaudan is a wolf subspecies, for example, then it may be one of the 32 wolf subspecies that Carbone counted between 1758 and 1943: no more, no less!
However, this hypothesis is, so to speak, ignored by most authors. Another idea held to be scientific truth: wolves do not naturally mate with dogs. So if there is coupling, it's because men provoked it, QED.
Oh good? But natural hybrids are reported almost everywhere, especially in Spain and Portugal, as Carbonne and Castres write (whose work is superbly ignored by all the works produced!) and currently, the breeders of Dalmatia (Croatia) have major concerns due to predation attacks carried out by packs of wolves and hybrids in organized bands... Finally, and it is well known, either wolves do not attack humans (categorical assertion) or they embody the Scourge of God…..
Biotopes and Mutations
You don't need to be a Darwin specialist to understand that every living creature either adapts to its environment or disappears. Geneviève Carbone notes that one aspect of evolution concerns the physical appearance of mutant individuals.
Thus, Dr. Castre writes in his thesis deposited at Maison Alfort that specimens of different subspecies (wolves for example) can be different from each other and that even within a litter, two brothers can be "as different than a Charolais bull from an Aubrac bull".
Of course, evolution induces new behaviors: reproduction, predation, etc. It is perhaps this lead that sheds light on the "non-standard" behavior of the Beast of Gévaudan. Note that in the middle of the 18th century, we are in full change of the wolf's biotope: human overpopulation (220,000 inhabitants against 76,000 today), deforestation (national area: 6,500,000 h in 1765 against 18,000,000 h around 1990).
Farms are also changing, those of sheep declining in favor of those of cattle. Other examples for other species confirm this process: the lions of Tsavo in Kenya, the great white shark of Martha's Vineyard in 1916, modern bull sharks, dog/wolf hybrids in Siberia or Dalmatia, griffon vultures of the Pyrenees, etc.
To sum up: it is the human-induced changes in biotopes that cause the evolution and behavioral change of primary resident species. If we refer to the work of Moriceau, concerning wolf attacks in France, it would seem that our Beast is not an isolated case. It is the extent of the damage and the singular behavior of the animal that characterize the Beast of Gévaudan. Could we be dealing with a particular wolf, a "Canis lupus gevaudensis"?
Some common misconceptions about wolf attacks
One of the controversies between accusers and defenders of wolves concerns the attacks of these canines on humans. Jean-Marc Moriceau counted 1165 between 1580 and 1842, Carbon only 440 in Germany and Austria, in 400 years. All in all, very little if we bring these figures back over time.
It would be interesting to study whether these attacks are linked to particular events: wars, famines, epidemics, which, according to Carbone, are the benchmarks for the frequency of attacks on humans. The causes of these attacks are not always identified: rage? defense ? predation? In any case, the situation in Gévaudan was calm in 1764. One of the arguments most often put forward by defenders of wolves is the extreme rarity or even absence of attacks on humans in North America and Canada. . This argument is specious and yet is continually put forward by some "lycophiles",
Let's just note:
1) that the human ecological footprint was, until recently, much smaller than in Europe and that:
2) this situation changes with global warming and the search for oil in the far north. The Canadian press has echoed the increasing frequency of "attacks" by wolves - and bears - in this region. There remains the question of beheadings: wolves don't "chop off" the heads of their victims, pro-wolves say.
However, Carbone demonstrates the opposite, the wolves attacking primarily in the throat. The controversy then rebounds on the term "trench". Alain Bonet reports 19 cases of beheadings, but notes that most witnesses did not directly witness the murders, and that the term "razor cut" appeared in newspapers that passed the word on to each other, the razor becoming a knife. butcher then sword from newspaper to newspaper ... only the chainsaw is missing on arrival!
In reality, wolf attacks on humans are real but rare. Socrates reported the attacks of "monolycos" - the lone wolf - on humans; Buffon then Rollinat too. Geneviève Carbone likewise, while noting their rarity, the attacks can be classified into 3 categories:
- Rabid Animals: Nothing so reported in connection with the Beast.
- Wounded Animals: When wounded, the Beast retreats.
- Defense Attacks: Nothing notable in our history...
This is therefore the extraordinary aspect of the Beast of Gévaudan: repeated attacks, well beyond food needs, in short, quite unusual behavior for an ordinary wolf. Finally, another controversy rages over the victims: women and children. No wonder, Moriceau points out: the men work in groups in the fields, armed with their tools. The women and children are sent, alone from an early age, to tend the herds.
The big horny dog in Gévaudan?
The question of the behavior of this beast is in fact the central question of this news item. If, by cross-checking the most credible DIRECT testimonies, we can draw a fairly precise physical portrait of the Beast (size, weight, coat), a portrait ultimately quite close to the Chastel beast and the Marin report, the question of its zoological nature remains to be clarified. We can immediately rule out any leads other than a canine: dog, wolf, or a hybrid of the two species.
Unconventional behavior, we said, is that the animal attacks in walled gardens, villages, even in a shed! The presence of other adults does not frighten him; it follows its prey stubbornly, renews its attacks (several times a day) but does not disdain, contrary to what many authors say, to attack livestock.
Finally, this animal does not bark, does not howl, seems accustomed to the human environment: there are lupin traits and canine traits in the Beast of Gévaudan. But in the end nothing extraordinary in its physical aspects: "it's a wolf that is not a wolf" and a behavior that is that of a wolf and a dog. Which orients us well and truly on the trail of the hybrid rather than that of the "Canis lupus gevaudansis" or that of the Grand Corniaud du Gévaudan.
Burning news also sheds light on the versatile and ferocious nature of certain hybrids: in Dalmatia (Croatia), wolves surviving from regulated hunts gather and mate with stray and even domestic dogs. Researcher Jasna Jeremic reports that they do not hesitate to attack large cattle and enter villages.
In central Russia, the same phenomenon is observed, wolves and hybrids do not hesitate to attack supermarket customers to steal food from shopping carts. Beautiful examples of adaptations to environments! We can therefore identify the hybrid family affiliation of the Beast of Gévaudan: it remains to reconstruct its course.
Conclusion: proposal for a scenario
And first, this question:
Is there one or more Beasts of Gevaudan?
We will immediately eliminate the wolf killed in Les Chazes, which I affirm has nothing to do with our beast (see the dedicated chapter on the site); likewise the wolf killed by the guard Rinchard in May 1765. If we observe the chronology of the attacks as well as their locations, we notice that these are compatible and theoretically possible with the trajectory of a single animal. However, Dr. Castre has drawn up a picture which demonstrates that two individuals sowed terror in Gévaudan, which he calls "northern wolf" and "southern wolf".
Here is our scenario.
At the beginning of 1764, a litter of hybrids reached maturity in the Vivarais (western Ardèche), where Jean-Marc Moriceau noted that the first attacks were reported there. The two animals will go up to the north (via Aubrac, then Margeride, the region of the 3 mountains) sowing terror. The first animal was slaughtered on May 1, 1765 by the Marlet de la Chaumette brothers: their description of the animal corresponds exactly to the portrait of the Beast.
The brothers in question are experienced hunters and educated bourgeois, which strengthens their testimony. The seriously injured animal disappears in the forest, we will never find his body, but it is a fact: the attacks slow down quickly. On August 11, 1765, the "Maid of Gévaudan" wounded the second Beast near Paulhac, who withdrew, the attacks ceased.
On September 20, 1765, Antoine killed the great wolf of Chazes presented at Versailles as THE Beast of Gévaudan. A few weeks later, the attacks begin again: time for the second beast to lick its wounds? It will be necessary to wait for the (miraculous?) shot of a certain Jean Chastel on June 19, 1767 to put an end to the Beast of Gévaudan: we will never hear about it again.
The remains will be brought back to the Château du Besset where the autopsy report will be recorded by the royal notary Marin. It is unambiguously a large canine (53kg), described by Marin as "an extraordinary wolf of a kind never seen under our skies" and formally identified by dozens of witnesses - unlike the Chazes wolf - and qualified by the clerics who assisted Marin as a "true Beast of Gévaudan".
The absence of certain details (black dorsal line cited by certain witnesses) can be explained by the physical differentiations underlined by Castre (read: what are wolves made of?). There will be no more attacks in Gévaudan. Thus ends the story of the Beast and here begins its legend.
Text presented here with the author's agreement.