It was about half past midnight when Russ Fee woke up to the sound of frantic shouts coming from a campsite next to his in Canada’s Banff National Park. From within his tent, he listened, quickly discerning that the voices belonged to a man and a woman. They were screaming for help.
“I threw my shoes on. My wife tossed me a lantern,” Fee said in an interview Tuesday with the radio show “Calgary Eyeopener.” “I popped out of the tent and just started running toward their tent sort of yelling, ‘I’m here! I’m here! What’s wrong?’ ”
Fee, who is from Calgary, told the program that he expected to find “two really scared parents” whose child had wandered off into the woods. Instead, the sight that greeted him was much more distressing.
The family’s tent was in shambles, Fee said, and sticking out of its entrance was the rear end of a large wolf.
In what officials with Parks Canada are calling a “very rare incident,” a wolf attacked a New Jersey couple and their two children who were visiting the national park in Banff, Alberta, early Friday – a harrowing encounter that may have ended differently if it weren’t for Fee’s quick thinking, Canadian Broadcasting Corp. reported.
“We are forever grateful to Russ who came to our aid,” Elisa Rispoli, whose husband, Matt, was injured in the attack, wrote on Facebook. Describing Fee as a “guardian angel,” Elisa added that the Canadian man probably saved her husband’s life.
“It could have been so so much worse, and we are just feeling so thankful that we are all still sitting here as a complete family,” she wrote.
The Rispolis were asleep in their tent at the park’s Rampart Creek Campground when they were jolted awake after midnight by the wolf.
“It was like something out of a horror movie,” Elisa wrote in the Facebook post.
Matt instantly threw himself in front of his wife and the children, fighting the predator as it ripped apart the tent. While her husband was trying to keep the wolf at bay, Elisa wrote that she lay on top of her two boys to shield them. Together, the couple cried out for help.
Luckily, Fee heard them.
When he arrived at the family’s campsite, Fee told “Calgary Eyeopener” that he saw the wolf attempting to yank something free of the tent, like it was “pulling on a toy.”
“It was big enough that I immediately figured out what it was, which is weird because I’ve never seen one outside of the zoo,” he said. “It was just so much larger than any dog I’ve ever seen.”
Inside the now mostly collapsed dwelling, an intense tug-of-war was unfolding. Elisa wrote that the animal had “started to drag Matt away” and she was holding on to his legs.
“I cannot and don’t think I’ll ever be able to properly describe the terror,” she wrote.
Meanwhile, as Fee ran toward the tent, carrying only the lantern his wife gave him, he devised a hasty plan.
“I just kind of kept running at it and I just kicked it … in the back hip area like I was kicking in a door,” he said on the radio show. “I booted it as hard as I could.”
The kick may not have done much physical damage, but Fee said it was enough to startle the wolf into letting Matt go. Then, the animal emerged from the tent and Fee said he “immediately regretted kicking it.”
“I felt like I had kind of punched someone that was way out of my weight class,” he said.
But before Fee had to think of another way to take on the wolf solo, he said Matt, whose “whole half side was just covered in blood,” came flying out of the tent. The two men began screaming at the wolf and hurling rocks about “the size of a head of cabbage” at the animal to drive it back, Fee said. Soon, the wolf was far enough away that the group was able to flee to Fee’s campsite, where they hid in his minivan.
On Facebook, Elisa wrote that her husband was transported to a hospital where the puncture wounds and lacerations on his hands and arms were treated.
“We are pretty traumatized but ok,” she wrote.
Park officials announced Friday that Rampart Creek Campground was closed because there was a wolf in the area. Parks Canada staff located a wolf about a half-mile from the Rispoli family’s campsite shortly after the attack and euthanized it, the Calgary Herald reported. Parks Canada said on Tuesday that DNA tests confirmed the wolf that was put down was the same one that had sent Matt to the hospital, CBC reported. The campground reopened earlier this week.
There was no food or anything else that usually attracts wildlife found around or inside the Rispolis’ tent, officials said, but they noted that the wolf’s physical state may have played a part in the attack, according to CBC.
“Veterinary tests have confirmed that the wolf was in poor condition and likely nearing the end of its natural life span,” the government agency said in a news release. “The wolf’s condition was likely a contributing factor for its unusual behaviour and this remains a very rare incident.”
The agency did not respond to a request for comment late Tuesday.
Canada is home to 60,000 wolves, the second-largest wolf population in the world after Russia, according to the International Wolf Center. But wolf-human encounters, especially those that result in injury or death, are infrequent, according to a 2002 report that examined 80 cases in Alaska and Canada over a roughly 60-year period. The case history found 41 incidents of people coming into contact with wolves in Canada. Of those, only four involved the animals attacking and seriously injuring people.
“A person in wolf country has a greater chance of being killed by a dog, lightning, a bee sting or a car collision with a deer than being injured by a wolf,” the center wrote.
Jon Stuart-Smith, a human-wildlife conflict specialist with Parks Canada, told CBC that Friday’s attack marked the first time a person had been hurt by a wolf at a national park. Other attacks have happened in provincial parks or on unprotected land, Stuart-Smith said.
In an Instagram post this week, Matt Rispoli provided an update on his health, writing that he and his family were going to Calgary for more rabies shots before heading home.
“The Lakes in Alberta and BC are amazing, the mountains are dynamic, the wild life is (well you know),” he wrote. “I’m sure I’ll be back some day but maybe in a camper van instead.”
Local journalism is essential.
The journalists of The Spokesman-Review are a part of the community. They live here. They work here. They care. You can help keep local journalism strong right now with your contribution. Thank you.
Subscribe to the sports newsletter
Get the day’s top sports headlines and breaking news delivered to your inbox by subscribing here.