There are no federal laws regulating possession of wolves. And anyone who acquires an "animal care" license from the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service can breed, exhibit, sell and ship wolves, as long as they're captive-bred, not wild-caught animals belonging to a population protected by federal or state endangered species laws. The license is easy to obtain; a set of vague regulations covers wolves, big cats, bears, rhinos and elephants, under the Animal Welfare Act, which Congress passed in 1966 and repeatedly amended to establish "minimum standards."

To exhibit wolves, you just need a primary enclosure big enough for the animals to make "normal postural and social adjustments," surrounded by a perimeter fence that's at least eight feet tall. You must also provide a species-specific diet, plenty of water, and shelter from the elements. There are no requirements for any kind of mental stimulation to satisfy the animals' natural drives. USDA license fees are cheap: $40-$310 per year for exhibitors, depending on the number of animals; $40-$760 per year for breeders and animal brokers, depending on their annual income from sales. Some may also need a state or county license, although many don't bother to obtain one. There are plenty of loopholes in the laws. Meanwhile, an unknown number of pure wolves are kept as pets; estimates range from the hundreds into the thousands. Inspections and enforcement of federal regulations — done by the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service — are limited. As one Fish and Wildlife Service agent told me, "There are fewer than 200 agents in the entire country. Captive wildlife protection is important, but it's not our first priority. We go for the biggest bang for the buck and focus on the trade in wild-caught endangered species."

It's difficult to determine the exact number of captive wolf operations. According to a federal database, about two dozen operations in the West have a federal license and the word "wolf" in their names, ranging from the Wild Spirit Wolf Sanctuary in Ramah, N.M., to the Wolf Howl-O Exotic Petting Zoo in Kelso, Wash. But many licensed captive-wolf operations don't use the word "wolf": Howlers Inn, for example, a bed-and-breakfast near Bozeman, Mont., keeps wolves in a three-acre enclosure and a one-acre enclosure that have water features, trees and boulders.

The most ethical operations are nonprofits that provide a sanctuary for animals with nowhere else to go. These places try to educate visitors about wolf behavior and biology, hoping to win support for wild wolf conservation. Raising money, however — whether an operation is nonprofit or not — is an unavoidable part of the mission. WERC, for instance, solicits donations, asking people to "adopt" its wolves. The overhead for each of WERC's six wolves runs about $12,000 per year, including food; immunizations, surgery and other veterinarian services; maintenance of fences; round-the-clock supervision; and liability insurance in case a visitor gets injured, according to WERC's director, Chris Anderson. Some of the small mom-and-pop sanctuaries barely survive; they welcome visitors, but request donations, and they're thankful for every penny they get.

There's also a business side to captive wolves, one that includes not only breeding, but also buying and selling the animals and using them for photo shoots and other enterprises. "A lot of people think those calendar shots of wolves are wild wolves. That's just not the case. Wild wolves are too elusive," Mace Loftus, a Nevada wolf and wolf-dog breeder who supplies animals to photographers, said at the "Pawlitically Incorrect Dog Symposium" in Novato, Calif., nine years ago. To get that perfect wolf-puppy-explores-wildflower-meadow image, Loftus dips flower stems in Kool-Aid and puts them in the mouths of wolf puppies. For other shots, he'll smear liverwurst on the bark of a tree, and try to get the animal's attention. As soon as the wolf peers around the tree, "Bang!" he says. "You've got your 'watcher in the woods' and you make a million dollars."

Even the highly respected National Geographic recently took advantage of the steady supply of wolf puppies at a northern Idaho operation called Wolf People, paying for carefully staged shots of pups exiting a den. As the Wolf People tour guide explained, "We constructed the den and shoved all the puppies inside, then the cameraman shot them as they came out," for a film on baby animals.

The pups entice tourists as well. When I visited Wolf People, a girl cuddled a wolf puppy in her arms and whispered to her mother, "Can we get one?" The puppy, like all the wolves at Wolf People, was not a rescue animal. It was born on site, the result of intentional breeding.

Wolf People has also bought animals from Triple D Game Farm in Kalispell, Mont., which is mainly known for providing "animal models" — including grizzly bears, lynx, tigers and snow leopards — for wildlife photographers and filmmakers. Triple D touts its positive role in conservation, arguing that using animal models is better than disturbing animals in the wild. Its wolves, which rent for $350 per day, are housed indoors, in what employee Kathleen O'Neil described as "condos," and for photo shoots they're moved into outdoor enclosures constructed of high-tensile game fence reinforced with hot wire.

Viewers of Jim and Jamie Dutcher's Emmy Award-winning 1997 documentary film, Wolves at Our Door, and their 2005 sequel Living with Wolves — both of which aired on the Discovery Channel — are told that "one wolf pack has accepted a human presence and begun to reveal the secrets of their long-hidden lives." Those wolves were donated by people in Montana and Minnesota, and Jim Dutcher placed them in a 25-acre enclosure in Idaho's Sawtooth Mountains, where they had no choice but to reveal their daily lives, which included being petted and receiving care from a veterinarian (for more information on those wolves, see the correction at the end of the story).

With all the activity — including unplanned reproduction (which often occurs) and people who acquire wolves as pets and then find it doesn't work out — there's a surplus of captive wolves. Pretty much every operation is filled to capacity. When the economy tanked, affecting wolf-related businesses, Bear Country U.S.A., a drive-through wildlife park in South Dakota, called up Mission: Wolf to see if it had room for seven surplus pups — three Arctic wolves and four Canadian grays. Mission: Wolf's director, Kent Weber, told the Colorado Daily that people have tried to give him more than 6,000 wolves since he started in 1988, but he's turned down most because he can't take care of more than a few dozen at any given time. Yet it's hard to say no. Weber and his wife, Tracy Brooks, who's effectively Mission: Wolf's co-director, accepted all seven of the wolf puppies from Bear Country U.S.A.

Some people defend keeping captive wolves by saying the animals have never known anything different and don't long for the outside world. They feel safe in their enclosures, delighted with their three hots and a cot. Yet while many captive-born, human-socialized wolves might act friendly and even loving toward people, those animals are still wild at a genetic level; their natural instincts have not been selectively bred out of them over multiple generations, as has been done with domestic dogs. They won't display tame behavior reliably or pass such behavior on to their offspring.