A tragic blend of wild and domestic
"Rowdy," born in a cage at a Texas roadside circus and sold as a wolf-hybrid pup to a 10-year-old boy in Colorado, used his mouth the way people use their hands. As he grew larger, Rowdy would drag the boy around his pen by an arm or a leg. It was all in good fun, but then the boy went away for a few weeks. When he returned, Rowdy was eager to play rough; this time the boy became frightened.
His alarm fired Rowdy's predator instinct, and the boy's resulting injuries required 72 stitches. Rowdy was caged in a Texas oil field for a year before his owner brought him to Mission: Wolf, a refuge in southern Colorado for these difficult hybrids.
Rowdy's story illustrates the unpredictable behavior of wolf-dogs and the problems people may run into when they try to make them into family pets, says Kent Weber, Mission: Wolf's founder.
Now, two recent attacks - one which left a woman dead in the Colorado Springs area - plus a couple of earlier maulings of children, have spurred the Colorado Legislature to look at wolf hybrids and perhaps come up with restrictions on them. Ten states ban the wolf-dogs.
But it is likely the Legislature will learn that any generalization about wolf hybrids is probably wrong. Its task will be further complicated by the fact that it is virtually impossible to determine whether a hybrid truly has any wolf blood.
"If you put your beagle in a blender and look at its DNA, you couldn't tell it from a wolf," says Ed Bangs, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service wolf-recovery director for Montana and Idaho. "Your dog - genetically speaking - is a wolf."
In relative terms, wolf-dogs are not a threat. The Humane Society of the United States has estimated that wolf-dogs kill an average of one child every two years: Bangs says that about 200,000 people seek medical attention each year for dog bites, and about 20 people are killed. Animal-control experts say German shepherds are responsible for the most attacks on humans.
"Yet, when a wolf-dog hybrid attacks someone, it becomes a big deal," Bangs says.
Which isn't to say there is no problem with wolf-dog hybrids, as Rowdy's story illustrates. Remixing the wild animals with their domestic relatives creates a volatile brew, most experts agree. Unlike wolves, dogs don't fear humans. And, unlike wolves, dogs allow humans to dominate them.
"We've taught dogs and bred dogs to attack and kill dogs, and to attack and kill people," says Weber. "Wild wolves just don't behave this way. But when you combine the aggressiveness of a dog with the strength and independence of a wolf, that's when you get a time bomb."
Wolf-dogs are hot items in the pet market, in states where they're legal. But the buyer never knows what - if any - percentage of his new purchase is wolf. The slanted, mysterious eyes might just come from Alaskan husky genes. The higher the reputed percentage of wolf, the more marketable the animal.
"It's the old elbow-in-the-rib and wink routine," Bangs says. "(The breeders) tell the buyer, "We say it's 50 percent, but it's really 95 percent (wolf)." It's just a marketing strategy."
Most wolf-dog experts say they are baffled by the desire to own a wolf-dog. They're not good pets and can never be chained up, says George Stapleton, a staffer with Candy Kitchen Rescue Ranch in New Mexico.
"Everybody wants a piece of the wild," he says. But when buyers get what they think they want - a high-percentage wolf hybrid - they also get a passel of problems, he says.
"People will pay as much as $1,500 for a pup," says Darlene Kobobel, of the Wolf Hybrid Rescue Center in Lake George, Colo. "But by the time it's reached maturity, around a year old, they are desperate to get rid of it."
Wolf hybrids tear up furniture and yards; they cannot be housebroken; they are extremely rough with children; and they kill small pets.
A minimum facility to take decent care of a high-percentage hybrid is a one-acre lot with an eight-foot fence, Stapleton says. The animals that have less than that often wind up at a pound or animal shelter, where they are euthanized. Due to liability, few animal shelters will allow a wolf-dog to be adopted. Around four-fifths of hybrid pups will be dead by the time they're 3 years old.
Instead of taking a troublesome pet to the pound, Bangs says, some owners try to release it into the wild. "Those animals usually die a slow death by starvation, get run over or are killed by other predators, even by wolves."
Tamer animals often end up hanging around remote homes looking for human contact and food, Bangs adds, and these are often shot.
Since wolf-dogs are not accepted into established wolf packs, they present no problem to established recovery efforts, Bangs says. But Weber fears the attention given to wolf-dog attacks on humans has hurt Colorado's chances for wolf restoration, because people have heard that "wolves killed the woman."
While many experts recognize the special nature of these animals, few say owning one is a good idea.
"I do not recommend hybrids as pets," says Bangs. "The constraints of pethood are particularly unfair to high-percentage hybrids: Keeping wild animals under captive conditions is inhumane."
For information about wolves and wolf hybrids, contact the Wolf Hybrid Rescue Center, P.O. Box 212, Lake George, CO 80827 (719/748-8683); Mission: Wolf, P.O. Box 211, Silver Cliff, CO 81829 (719/746-2919); Candy Kitchen Rescue Ranch, Star Route 2, Box 28, Ramah, NM 87321 (505/775-3304.)
Ron Baird writes about environmental issues for the Colorado Daily in Boulder, Colorado.