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JEKYLL AND HYDE: The Wolf-Dog DilemmaText and photo by Ardeth Baxter
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The close, mutually advantageous relationship between wolves and humans dates back 20,000 to 100,000 years ago. Through thousands of years of selective breeding, wolves evolved into most unwolf-like creatures, like Chihuahuas, Poodles, Beagles, Dachshunds, and many other breeds. The modern practice of cross breeding domesticated dogs with their undomesticated and aggressive wolf cousins results in the wolf-dog hybrid, a Jekyll-Hyde creature that is too tame for Nature and too wild for the world of people. They are dogs without a home.
Today, because they admire their wildness, people breed wolf-dog hybrids as a business or as personal pets. My neighbor is one of them. He bought two female “high content” (a high genetic percentage of wolf) wolf-dogs as puppies several years ago. When they reached maturity, they both mated with his German Shepherd and produced puppies. The day before she gave birth, one of the females, who had previously shown no aggression, attacked one of my dogs. In a span of two months, despite the extra precautions I took, she, along with non-wolf-dog members of her pack, attacked two more of my dogs. All three sustained serious injuries but thankfully survived. The good news and the bad news is that as a result of the attacks, my neighbor realized he could no longer allow his wolf-dogs out of their pens to run loose, and now they’re all confined 24/7 in small chain link electrified enclosures. He also had to permanently separate his two original wolf-dog females because as adults they fought with each other. It’s not much of a life for semi-wild animals who need a lot of land on which to roam. My neighbor’s wolf-dogs now spend a lot of time digging, pacing and howling because they don’t get enough mental stimulation or exercise, which they absolutely require.
Raising wolf-dogs is a dangerous business for both breeders and the public, because their behavior is unpredictable, and they have larger teeth than domesticated dogs, which can inflict more damage to their victim. They may not obey commands consistently. As adults they are territorial and predatory. They may attack other animals, including livestock and other dogs. They will also attack people, particularly children, who often display the kind of behavior that provokes them. The number of wolf-dog hybrids in the U.S.A is estimated at approximately 300,000. Between 1982 and 2005, according to the animal advocacy publication “Animal People”, wolf-dogs were responsible for 69 life-threatening or fatal attacks on people. The only dogs responsible for more attacks were pit bulls and Rottweilers, who have much higher numbers than wolf-dogs.
Wolf-dog attacks are often in the news. In 2005 the New Mexico media reported two serious wolf-dog incidents in our state. The first was an escape of four wolf-dogs from a double cage enclosure at Wild Spirit Wolf Sanctuary in Ramah, during which the dogs injured and killed a number of livestock. The second involved a family of three in Gallup, all of whom were seriously injured by penned wolf-dogs when they were inspecting them for possible adoption from a private breeder. Sadly, Animal Control had no choice but to euthanize all the breeder’s wolf-dogs.
The dilemma of wolf-dogs is that the difference between the archaic days when humans first adopted wolves as companions and the 21st century is significant. The planet has many more humans, with more chances of close encounters between wolf-dogs and humans or domesticated animals. Wolves are often bred with dogs noted for their aggression, such as Rottweilers, Pit Bulls, Malamutes, Huskies, and German Shepherd Dogs, which makes them potentially even more dangerous. And because they’re partly domesticated and raised by humans, they’re not afraid of people. Wild wolves, in contrast, are timid and will avoid human contact.
Wolf-dogs are often mistaken for wolves, who are then blamed unfairly for attacks on humans. When their owners discover that they’re very high maintenance, wolf-dogs may end up being dumped at wolf sanctuaries. Wolf-dogs surrendered to animal shelters are usually euthanized because they’re considered too dangerous to be adopted out. Even worse, sometimes they’re released into the wild in the mistaken belief that they can survive on their own like wolves (they can’t). There is no legally recognized rabies vaccine for wolf-dogs. If they bite a human, they will likely be euthanized immediately by authorities.
Clearly, wolf-dogs are not a good idea on many levels. The owner of the animal must keep it under severe restraint or in confinement, or run the risk of harm or death coming to people and other animals in the vicinity. Should wolf-dogs be banned? Some enthusiasts argue that if they were banned other wolf-like dogs would mistakenly also be exterminated. The best solution is clearly education and mandatory spay/neuter, leading to the gradual phasing out of wolf-dogs.
I am relieved to report that my neighbor eventually had all his wolf-dogs spayed and neutered, and that County Animal Control is aware of the situation and monitors the dogs regularly. My experience has shown me that anyone who cares about the quality of life of canines and the safety of the community should understand that wolf-dogs are not appropriate as pets.
Differentiating Between Wolf, Dog and Wolf-Dog
At Wild Spirit Wolf Sanctuary (WSWS) we never use percentages when describing our animals. Instead we use content levels. Many breeders claim their wolf dogs are 65%, 98% or 72.352% wolf. While breeders sometimes achieve these numbers through tracking the parentage of animals, there is no way to determine the genetic pool when wolf-dogs are bred. The fact is, there is no DNA test to determine how much wolf is in an animal. There is only a 2% genetic difference between wolves and dogs. This is too small to be able to genetically test for the amount of wolf present. However, remember that there is only a 2.5% genetic difference between humans and chimpanzees. The physical and behavioral differences this can exhibit are huge. You may hear us referring to our wolf-dogs as low-content, mid-content, or high-content. A low-content animal has very little wolf in him or her. A high-content animal is just the opposite, and has very little dog in him or her. Because of this, we are constantly asked, “How can you tell if an animal is a dog or wolf?” or “How do you determine content level?” Our answer is always based on how wolf-like an animal looks, behaves and what we do know about their parentage. Think of it as a checklist: We go through a list of characteristics and if an animal has 6/15 wolf, it may be a low-content wolf-dog. If it has 10/15 wolf, it may be mid-content. If it has 14-15/15 wolf, it may be high-content or possibly a pure wolf. If an animal has less than 6 of these characteristics, chances are, it is just a dog. While behavioral differences are also enormous, below are some of the physical characteristics that differ from wolf to dog.
These characteristics can be a guide to owners, breeders, and possible adopters, as well as simply interested parties in determining the amount of wolf in an animal. Many animals that have been designated as wolf-dogs or pure wolf have very little if any wolf in them at all. Sometimes, wolf-dog owners rave to their friends, family and acquaintances about how wonderful wolf-dogs are as pets. More often than not, these animals are really mostly dog. High-content wolf-dogs and pure wolves make horrible pets. The perpetuation of the idea that they are good companions is what leads to thousands being bought each year, only to face abandonment, abuse, and finally, death. Through education, we hope that the public will help us to put an end to this epidemic.
WSWS houses over 50 wolves and wolf-dogs of various content levels. Educational tours covering all of this information and more occur Tuesday-Sunday at 11:00, 12:30, 2:00, and 3:30.
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