A Growing Problem
An Introduction to Wolf-Dog Crosses
There is a growing trend of pet wolf-dog ownership that started back in the 1950’s by a few well-intentioned people who, being genuinely concerned for the dwindling numbers of wild wolves, wanted to do something to ensure their survival. They reasoned that if the few remaining wolves could be bred to domesticated dogs, the genetic material of the wolves would be, at least in part, preserved through this line of wolf-dog crosses. It was thought that at a later date when the American public and federal authorities had a shift in attitude towards wilderness and the role of predators, lines could be bred back to eliminate the domestic ancestry and the offspring released back into the wild. Although a noble idea for its time, these visionaries lacked the broad knowledge of the many intricacies and problems that a selective breeding program posses in the long term. Others who came across these part wild, part domestic animals became interested and involved. Soon the numbers of wolf-dogs grew from a few to a few hundred to a few thousand, with each breeder selecting for what they hoped would be the ideal companion for a person who appreciates wildness. For anyone who has owned, spent time with, or simply met a wolf-dog, the opportunity to experience the intelligence and beauty of such a creature is special indeed. Some, having come across a wolf-dog, swear they could never own a domestic dog again, yet for every successful wolf-dog owner, there are many more who have tried to keep these animals and failed.
Unfortunately, there are currently between 250,000 and 500,000 wolves and wolf-dogs living in captivity in the U.S. today. While most will die within a year of their birth, new pups are constantly bred and sold. The wolf-dog business is a lucrative one… with each pup fetching from $50 to $500, depending on the advertised wolf percentage. New pups are sold to people looking for a guard dog, a family pet, a movie star or a fur source. What most breeders will not tell the new owners is that these little pups are not what they seem. A wolf-dog pup looks and acts much like a domestic dog when little, but as it grows and matures, it becomes a part wild, part domestic, and very confused animal. Nine out of ten pups are killed through neglect, abuse, euthanasia, escape and misunderstanding. The one pup out of ten that does survive usually ends up homeless.
In response to the growing problem of homeless pet wolves and wolf-dogs, refuges and sanctuaries have opened their gates and hearts to these animals. In caring for and getting to know these animals, it does not take a long time to realize that, in most cases, no matter how hard you try to provide for these animals – giving them large enclosures, raw meat, and canine companions – the animals still are not happy and either pace incessantly or transfer aggressions to other animals or handlers. After a few too many hard experiences, almost all refuges finally come to the decision not to take in any more unwanted pets. Since 1986, Mission:Wolf (a sanctuary in Southern Colorado) has received 2-6 phone calls and letters each week from owners who are having problems and do not want their pet wolf any longer. Added up, Mission:Wolf has turned away more than 5,000 animals in the past 20 years. Sadly, most of these animals are dead because their owners were either unable or unwilling to take the measures needed to provide an animal of this nature a quality home. Many more wolf-dogs however, continue to suffer in poor living conditions and are destined for the same fate if changes are not made. Urban and residential neighborhoods, small pens or chains, and abusive owners are all ingredients for disaster. Everyone involved is frustrated and regretful that they are unable to take in each unwanted animal. Mission:Wolf knows the realities of feeding and building enclosures for 52 wolves and wolf-dogs… making the idea of caring for 5,000+ animals absurd to consider.
Other facilities have taken in and occasionally even found homes for unwanted wolves and wolf-dogs. In many cases, however, they too have come to realize that the high numbers of unwanted pets and the extent of the wolf-dog problem is incredible. Nearly every refuge now has to turn away even the most needy animals. This has in turn motivated some individuals and animal welfare organizations to start campaigns to legislate the breed out of existence. Right now, legislation aimed at addressing this problem, from outright banning to a system of bureaucratic licensing and permitting, is being debated at both county and state levels. Many municipalities across the nation have begun zoning efforts designed to keep these pets out of the neighborhoods. At present, federal authorities recognize an animal that is 99-100% wolf (with only 0-1% dog ancestry) as a “wild, endangered species.” Those animals with more than a trace of domestic dog (98% or less wolf ancestry) are simply considered and regulated as dogs. What does this boil down to? By federal law, it is legal to buy, own and sell any animal that is 98% wolf or less. Conversely, animal control agencies and shelters are restricted to adopting out only domestic animals. All animals that could have some wolf ancestry are euthanized or sent to licensed sanctuaries. So where does this lead? No one really knows…
Unfortunately, problems in the positive identification of wolf-dogs make many of these laws mute and unenforceable from the start due to the common ancestry that wolves and dogs share. Even with today’s sophisticated DNA analysis equipment, researchers find it hard to tell the difference between a pure wolf and a pure dog, let alone the difference between a 98% wolf wolf-dog and a 100% wolf. To the theorist, it would be convenient to use such percentages for these fine distinctions, however, in practice such percentages amount to nothing more than speculation. Nonetheless, between the animal control agencies and the US Fish and Wildlife Service, the term “98% wolf” is commonly used. This so-called “two-percent loophole,” and a lack of legal clarity and distinction on the subject, is what enables professional and amateur breeders alike to make thousands of dollars every spring by selling a “piece of the wild”. Yet, by conservative estimate, 80 to 90 percent of these animals will never live to see their third year.
The most unfortunate side of this story is, regardless of state, county and local laws to the contrary, wolf-dogs for sale are not going to disappear from the papers tomorrow nor are unwanted pets needing homes. Human history has shown that people will want most that which they cannot have. As long as the wolf is perceived as a dangerous animal, some will want to “tame” the wild beast and show it off. On the other side, as we move further and further away from nature in our every-day lives, we will continue to search for and crave a connection with the wilderness. Since the wolf is a great symbol for all that is wild, while, at the same time being our domestic dog’s closest cousin, some of us will continue to bring them into our homes as big fuzzy pets. This problem will not disappear overnight… there are going to continue to be a multitude of homeless and unwanted wolves and wolf-dogs living in captivity for a long time to come. So if a person, who educates him or herself to the realities of what it takes to care for one of these animals, still decides that a wolf-dog is what they want, I would begin by suggesting that they closely read the other pages on this website, follow up with more research, and then take in someone else’s ex-pet rather than making some breeder that much more wealthy. To those people who already have a wolf wolf-dog as a pet and find themselves in the problem stage, cheer up, all is not yet lost.
As a side note on terminology: Wolf-dogs are also commonly known as ‘wolf hybrids’ or ‘hybrids’. The term ‘hybrid’ technically refers to offspring born to parents of two different species, and is therefore infertile and incapable of reproducing itself (ex: a mule is the infertile offspring of a horse and a donkey). Wolf-dogs are not infertile, as they are the product of wolves and dogs (genetically the same species) mating. Referring to wolf-dogs as ‘hybrids’ is scientifically inaccurate.