Betsy Sikora Siino
Crossing the Line – The Case Against Hybrids
Despite their beauty and mystique, hybrids – animals created by breeding companion animals with their wild kin – pose great dangers for the unsuspecting public, not to mention harm for the creatures themselves.
On August 21, 1999, four-year-old Cody Tyler Fairfield was playing in the backyard of his home in Muskegon, MI. Also occupying the yard was the Fairfield family’s wolf/German shepherd hybrid, tethered to a chain. Left alone for a moment, Cody approached the family pet. Within minutes, the child was dead, his throat crushed, his trachea punctured.
With yet another child attacked, maimed or killed by a powerful animal fueled by a high predatory drive, the scramble to assign responsibility again took center stage. Unfortunately, such tragedies are not unusual, whether they involve domestic pet dogs or wolf/dog crosses. But what elevates cases involving wolf/dog mixes to a more devastating level is the character and superior strength of the attacker, a potentially confused creature that is neither dog nor wolf, yet is expected to fill both roles with consistency and predictability.
Not just crying wolf
In an analysis of data compiled from press accounts of dog attack deaths and maimings in the United States and Canada since 1982, Clinton, WA-based Animal People reported in September of this year that “wolf hybrids are usually kept well apart from children, and from any people other than their owners. Yet they have still found more opportunity to kill and maim than members of any other [kind of dog] except pit bull terriers and Rottweilers, each of whom may outnumber wolf hybrids by about 10 to 1.”
While wolf/dog hybrids are the most notorious wild/domestic animal crosses within America’s pet landscape today, they are not the only ones. Along with wolf dogs, dog/coyote crosses, or coydogs, and domestic cat/wildcat hybrids, also exist. The presence of these animals among us is steeped in a morass of ethics, legalities, rights and responsibilities, public safety, politics and heated emotion.
What is a hybrid?
A hybrid is a cross between two parental lines of chromosomally compatible breeding populations, whether it be a cross between two domestic purebred dogs or cats, a domestic dog and a wolf or a coyote, or a domestic cat and one of several types of wild felines. Classic wolf dogs are typically crosses between wolves and Alaskan malamutes or German shepherds. The most common cat hybrid is the Bengal, a cross between a shorthaired domestic cat, commonly an Egyptian Mau or Abyssinian, and an Asian leopard cat, which is not to be confused with the leopard. Other cat hybrids have been created by crossing domestic cats with wild jungle cats, servals and even bobcats.
The intent behind such breeding practices is to create a creature with the appearance of a wild animal and the temperament of a domestic pet. Breeders often pursue this goal with little regard for the physical and temperamental quality of their breeding stock. Yet even with close attention to such details, when musical DNA comes into play, all that is standard in the results is the unpredictability of it all. As Boston, MA-based Tufts University geneticist and certified applied animal behaviorist Alice Moon-Fanelli, Ph.D., explains, there are no guarantees in this particular breeding mission.
Not all hybrids are created equal–even within a given litter–and therein lies the problem. As Stephen Zawistowski, Ph.D., Senior Vice President, ASPCA Animal Sciences states, “When two different parental lines are crossed, this mixes the genetic variation between the two lines, so that you cannot predict which traits are inherited by a particular offspring. While predictability on a statistical level may be established after breeding thousands of progeny, you won’t necessarily know on an individual level.”
Some hybrids, both feline and canine, are willingly and easily trained – and some aren’t. Some people sing the praises of coydogs with friendly, outgoing personalities. Others consider skittish coyote hybrids with territorial fear-biting tendencies more common. After spending more than two decades working with coydogs, Moon-Fanelli concurs with the latter camp. (see “How Coy Maggie Is”)
A hybrid can be both well-behaved and beautiful, but too many harbor unstable temperaments. Combining this with hybrid vigor, or increased size and strength, results in a potentially overwhelming – and dangerous – pet. “The unpredictability and the fact that you cannot generalize their behavior are what make [wolf dogs] so dangerous,” says Moon-Fanelli, who has offered expert testimony in wolf-dog attack cases.
Dog vs. wolf
The problem, she explains, revolves around the profound differences between dogs and wolves. While domestic dogs have been selectively bred for centuries to submit to the bidding of humans – including attacking and releasing on cue – a wolf’s survival revolves around dominance, independent thinking and pack structure, which results in a natural bite inhibition, as one can’t go around mortally wounding one’s packmates.
“But when you take the wolf’s desire for dominance and the predatory behaviors that are innate – genetically intrinsic – to this animal, and combine that with a doggy background, you can end up with an animal with the wolf’s dominance and excessive predatory behavior and a reduced biting inhibition,” explains Moon-Fanelli. “In my experience, the wild influence also tends to dominate, which can lead to dangerous problems in the domestic setting.”
Just how many wolf dogs exist is unknown. Estimates of America’s wolf-dog population, for example, range anywhere from 300,000 to more than one million. To date there is no DNA test to determine what truly is or is not a hybrid, and looks can be deceiving.
Many so-called wolf dogs are not hybrids at all, their owners having been told by unethical breeders or well-meaning “experts” that their large, wolfy-looking domestic pets were bonafide wolf dogs. The harm in believing a gentle, obedient domestic dog is part wolf comes when one generalizes this misleading experience.
Wolf in dog’s clothing
“People who think they have a ‘wolf’ and then get the real thing only realize they have taken on a far more difficult animal after the animal begins to mature,” says wolf expert and photographer Monty Sloan of Wolf Park, a renowned wolf/wolf-dog sanctuary and educational center in Battle Ground, IN, which is contacted weekly by people seeking new homes for their wolf dogs. “Considering that early experience is so critical to canines, if these owners are not quick to realize they have a lot more responsibility and work on their hands, they may fail the animal completely.”
Proper care is most critical in the areas of training and socialization. “To create bonds of trust with a wolf or wolf dog, you need to spend 24 hours a day with it, starting at about 10 days of age,” says Brett Martin, education director of the Ramah, NM, wolf and hybrid sanctuary Candy Kitchen Wolf Rescue. “But this only maximizes the chances of socialization – it does not guarantee it.”
The case against hybrids
Consider, for example, the potential unpredictability of a cat hybrid, perhaps an early generation Bengal (enthusiasts claim that by the fourth generation, Bengals are no different from any other domestic cat). Most of the cat hybrids whom exotic animal trainer Diana Guerrero of Ark Animals in Escondido, CA, has seen have exhibited “timidity and extreme nocturnal activity, a lack of ability to integrate or accept change and an aversion to interaction with people.” Their guardians, in turn, become frustrated by such behavior patterns in pets whom they had expected to look like leopards but behave like cream puffs. In response, says Guerrero, “some breeders have recommended declawing and defanging for the safety of visitors or family members.”
The law of the land
Numerous state legislatures have already enacted laws to prohibit or at least regulate wolf hybrids. Michigan is currently addressing the problems of wolf-dog ownership with legislation that went into effect in July 2000, which requires sterilization of all hybrids and mandates stringent care requirements. A wolf dog in Michigan must now by law be housed in a securely anchored, escape-proof enclosure constructed of brick, concrete or chain link, with a minimum 900-square-foot floor. The animal must be properly fed, watered, sheltered and receive routine veterinary care, and his home must be kept clean and well-ventilated.
Eileen Liska, former staff member for the Detroit-based Michigan Humane Society (MHS) and lobbyist for the organization since 1990, sees this legislation as a necessary step. “Michigan has a generic dangerous animal act that kicks in after there is a problem,” she says. “The animal gets one free bite. But one free bite doesn’t work here. Hybrids don’t act like other aggressive dogs. In most cases, they give no warning; they just snap and become a predator. Laws are written for the norm, and the norm is that with wolf hybrids you don’t know what you’ve got until it’s too late.”
When owners realize that they cannot satisfy a hybrid pet’s needs (and most can’t), they turn to shelters and sanctuaries for rescue – if their animals are lucky. Some, on the other hand, set the animals free to fend for themselves or chain them in the backyard. Euthanasia is far more humane – this is typically the fate of any hybrid involved in a bite incident. To date there is no approved rabies vaccine for hybrids of any species, so the animal must be destroyed to determine whether the human victim will require rabies treatments.
The Michigan Humane Society accepts wolf dogs but doesn’t adopt them out. By law the animals are held for four days, after which they are euthanized. “These animals present a liability both financially and morally to shelters,” states MHS shelter manager Sherry Silk. “Adopt them out and you’re putting time bombs out there. Shelters just shouldn’t be doing it.” And most shelters today are not.
Though MHS’ shelter receives fewer wolf dogs these days than in years past, it continues to receive calls from would-be wolf-dog adopters. “What doesn’t make sense to me is that we have all these sweet, beautiful dogs in need of homes who would make wonderful pets,” says Silk.
Meanwhile, breeders continue to advertise wolf dogs who are “great with kids” and perfect for every owner and every living situation. Unknowing prospective owners buy the lies, inspired perhaps by recent viewings of Never Cry Wolf or Animal Planet’s Call of the Wild series. Candy Kitchen’s Martin cites two primary reasons that people are drawn to wolves and wolf dogs as companion animals. First and foremost, there are those who regard these exotic pets as a means of distinguishing themselves as unique or different from other people. Or, Martin states, “some people feel an emotional, spiritual connection to the wolf, and this compels them to want to share their lives with captive-bred wolves or wolf dogs.”
But the romanticism of owning a wolf hybrid is shattered when caretakers discover that these consummate escape artists require a large enclosure with a minimum eight-foot fence that is anchored deep within the ground to prevent excavation; that their needs for a high-quality, meat-based diet can be enormously expensive; that they probably cannot be housetrained, and that their greatest joy is tearing apart furniture and turning the backyard into a battleground ripe for trench warfare.
“Nearly every person I have talked to who had problems with their animals, especially those with insurmountable problems, had been given little or no information from the breeder,” says Sloan. “Or the information provided, such as ‘just treat them like you would a dog,’ was totally insufficient. Any good dog breeder, never mind a wolf-dog breeder, should do his best to talk a buyer out of getting one of his pups: tell them all the downsides and problems previous buyers have had, and supply references to owners of previous litters.”
As Martin explains, one of the most common – and potentially dangerous – mistakes that people make with canine hybrids is “thinking they can be raised like domesticated canines. But wolves and wolf dogs are generally too intelligent and independent to be told what to do and to adopt our rules as their own.”
In defense of hybrids
The pro-wolf dog camp found justification for their choice of pet during the last decade when the scientific community officially proclaimed wolf and dog to be members of the same species. In addition, the U.S. Department of Agriculture is currently reviewing the possible approval of a rabies vaccine for wolves and wolf dogs. Nevertheless, responsible hybrid enthusiasts, acknowledging the potential problems that these animals present with or without a rabies vaccine, agree that education is key to long-term hybrid success and safety.
“I would advise anyone wishing to obtain a wolf dog to first take whatever time is needed to gain an insight into what is required to care for one in a responsible, safe manner,” says Greg Largent, vice president of the Iowolfer Association, which works to promote responsible wolf-dog ownership.
“A responsible owner will take all measures possible to supervise the animals carefully when visitors are in the animal’s area to avoid any potential problems,” explains Dorothy Prendergast, editor of The Wolf Hybrid Times.
“Those who breed and keep wolf dogs with no regard for the outcome of the progeny are the biggest problem facing the wolf-dog community,” says Largent. “I believe that wolf dogs have lost some of their allure, but there are more breeders than ever. Breeder contracts, return policies, housing and containment, feeding and training and laws governing the ownership of wolf dogs – responsible breeders cover these topics and much more before placing their animals.”
Also facing the pro-hybrid, particularly the pro-wolf dog camp, is the issue of regulation. In the wake of an attack, the public invariably cries out for legislation that will restrict or even ban these animals. But this, too, presents a quandary. “Due to misrepresentation and the inability to accurately identify wolf dogs through DNA testing,” says Candy Kitchen’s Martin, “we have no truly concise idea of how many wolf dogs exist in this country. How can you regulate a problem when you can’t even properly identify the population’”
The heated arguments that hybrids inspire are rooted in the potential threat these animals present to the public. But when pondering the status of hybrids within our society, we must also think about the well-being of the animals themselves.
“The biggest concerns I have are for the safety of the breeding animals – their housing conditions, the impact on the wild animal trade and genetic dilution,” says wild/exotic animal trainer Guerrero. Given the many unethical people involved and the multiple generations of breeding animals often required to achieve a decent hybrid pet, how can we ignore the suffering that so many of the animals endure to satisfy the end goal?
Hybrids tax the already limited resources of the nation’s animal shelters, both in the number of animals needing sanctuary, as well as the potential liability they present. The reputation of the wild creatures who contribute to their creation is also at stake. Every time a hybrid pet is involved in an attack, the animal tarnishes the reputation of wild predators, something that they can ill afford in our ever-burgeoning urban society. The same holds true whenever a frustrated owner abandons a hybrid to fend for himself. While the animal may not survive, he can also become a menace, destroying livestock and property or attacking humans.
Those concerned about wild wolf populations have good reason to worry about wolf dogs running loose and wild, especially during this very sensitive time when wolves are being reintroduced in various regions of the country. Aside from the effect that their breeding with wild wolves would have on the pure wolf gene pools, there is no better ammunition for opponents of reintroduction than the behavior of unstable part-wolves who don’t understand the protocols of life in the wild, i.e., choose proper wild prey and avoid humans.
So what is the answer? Outlaw the animals, say opponents. But is that feasible? “It’s a double-edged sword,” says Martin. “Surplus captive-bred animals are a problem on a national scale, but I don’t believe that any federal regulation can phase out excess breeding. Unfortunately, that leaves only one choice: banning. However, banning would probably just send it all underground, and public awareness would greatly decrease over time.”
The answer – other than convincing would-be owners that a wolfy-looking Malamute or a shelter cat with tiger stripes might be a better pet choice – probably lies somewhere in the realm of compromise. Over the past decade or so, more states and communities have issued regulations on the keeping of hybrids, particularly wolf dogs, and more are expected to follow Michigan’s lead. Also gaining attention is the idea of self-policing – many hybrid proponents acknowledge that if they themselves fail to look out for the well-being of their animals and the general public, someone else will. But just how self-policing might be carried out remains unanswered.
Sloan believes that standardizing the information that is distributed to potential buyers by breeders would help. “Also, as with dogs, there seems to be a strong genetic component in personality characteristics in wolves,” says Sloan, who has worked with thousands of wolves and wolf dogs. “I have seen many different lines of pure wolves that exhibited behavioral characteristics that made some easier to work with in captivity, while others were much more problematic. Selective pressure to produce animals who are better suited to live in a pet environment would make sense, but a protocol would have to be designed – and adhered to.” To this statement, Zawistowski of the ASPCA responds, “That already happened 15,000 years ago – that’s why we have companion dogs in the first place.”
The ardent supporters of feline and canine hybrids insist that they breed and live with hybrids because they love wolves, coyotes or the world’s wild cats. Equally passionate wildlife advocates who do not consider these “four-footed Frankensteins” acceptable receptacles for those precious wild genes, counter that anyone who loves wild creatures would never dream of diluting them with domestic blood.
But beyond this argument, we must simply think of the animals. Too many fall through the cracks. “For all those people who say they have a good hybrid, wolf or coyote, I say ‘What about all the others who aren’t so good?’” asks Moon-Fanelli. “Plus, these animals can be dangerous, and they can be miserable. I’ve worked with some coydogs [who] were not well or happy dogs – real social misfits. Some are quite fearful, nervous and anxious about everything in their environment. Their fear prevents them from enjoying their daily lives, and that’s very sad.”
Silk experiences that sadness whenever she is assigned the duty of holding a wolf dog for the required four days prior euthanasia. “Most are so aloof,” she says. “They behave so differently because of their wild blood. They sit there with this tortured look in their eyes, and I feel so bad for them.”
“Wolf dogs can be a very rewarding experience for those who are capable of and willing to meet the animals’ needs,” says Sloan. “However, because so many dogs in general are failed by negligence, misunderstanding and a simple lack of resources, the far more critical and demanding nature of a wolf or wolf dog narrows the margin of error considerably. Most good dog owners would not make good wolf-dog owners. The demands of the animals would simply exceed their resources.”
To help the public recognize the reality of those demands, Iowolfer’s Largent explains that “there is presently a movement underway within the wolf-dog community to unite together to concentrate on the educational aspects of wolf-dog ownership, and to provide a location where the betterment of the wolf dog, rather than the betterment of the wolf-dog owner, will be sought.”
In this spirit, Iowolfer is working toward seeing that every wolf dog is sold to “fully screened, well-informed and educated folks” who can and will uphold the tenets of responsible guardianship. Yet for the sake of all hybrids, as well as children like Cody Tyler Fairfield, the ASPCA recommends that these animals not be kept as pets. Not only should all existing hybrids be spayed and neutered, but no more should be produced.
Freelance writer Betsy Sikora Siino resides in New York State.
HOW COY MAGGIE IS
In October 1994, ASPCA Webmaster Garth Moore and his wife, Sarah, of Maplewood, NJ, adopted Maggie, a very young puppy, from the Pecos (NM) Animal Welfare Society. Along with two sisters, Maggie had been found, flea ridden and abandoned, by the local sheriff, who strongly suspected that the trio resulted from a fly-by-night union between a neighborhood German shepherd/chow mixed-breed female and a male coyote.
Right away Maggie demonstrated the instincts of a wild animal. Says Moore, “Maggie is not good around people unless she knows them really well – and that takes a long time. When she was three months old we began introducing her to other people, but she would slink out of the room.”
Committed to his coydog’s well-being, Moore rearranged his work schedule so that Maggie would be alone for only minimal amounts of time. After having her spayed, Moore enrolled with her in a basic obedience class. The two bonded closely, and to this day Maggie loves to play with and be groomed by Moore. “Ever since Maggie was really young, she’s loved being brushed,” he states about his companion. “She’ll also lick my face like crazy and won’t stop.”
Moore’s mother-in-law, Carolee Zolad of Long Valley, NJ, concurs that their coydog is “very, very loyal to her owners and loves to wash her people.” Yet while Maggie took to Zolad immediately, on separate occasions, Maggie has bitten five of the Moores’ relatives, drawing blood. “Maggie’s willing to throw herself at the door to get at strangers,” describes Zolad, and has lunged clear through a screen door after a prey animal.
Whenever anyone comes to visit, Maggie must be locked away in a bedroom with food and water, and Moore stays with her while his wife answers the door. Extremely territorial, Maggie will pace back and forth in agitation by the closed door despite Moore’s presence.
While her family is completely dedicated to meeting the needs of this high-energy, highly intelligent coydog, Moore admits, “If I could change anything about Maggie, I wish she could be friendly with people. I’d like to have family and friends around, but [her aggression is] something we have to live with.”
These days Maggie enjoys sitting atop a hill and surveying her domain of three acres, but what does the future bode? The Moores are expecting their first baby and are planning to introduce their child to Maggie, albeit with careful supervision. While there is evidence that Maggie adores children, will she accept the newest pack member without question? Only time will tell.
For more information on hybrid pets, check out these websites:
- Ark Animal Tracks: www.arkanimals.com
- Candy Kitchen Rescue Ranch: www.inetdesign.com/candykitchen
- Iowolfer Association: www.interl.net/~iowolfer
Click on “Coalition” to review a proposed nationwide guideline for responsible wolf hybrid ownership.
- Wolf Park: www.wolfpark.org
- The Wolfdogs Resource: www.kc.net/~wolf2dog/index.html
The following are steps you can take to reduce the number of suffering hybrids and potential tragedies.
- Get involved in state efforts to regulate the keeping of hybrids as pets. Contact lobbyist Eileen Liska at Liska Associates for assistance at (248) 887-2184.
- Educate people you know who may be enchanted by the idea of a hybrid pet about the realities of living with one.
- Keep your eyes open for irresponsible guardians and potentially dangerous animals, and report them before tragedy strikes.
All existing canine hybrids should be spayed and neutered and kept according to the guidelines outlined in Michigan’s new law, for the good of the animals and the general public. No other hybrids should be produced.
ASPCA Animal Watch – Winter 2000
© 2000 ASPCA
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