Wolfdogs arouse instincts of human trust--and fear

June 23, 1991|By Stephen Wigler | Stephen Wigler,Sun Staff Correspondent Sun intern Craig Timberg contributed to this article.

Cheyenne thrusts huge paws on a visitor's shoulders, stares at him through golden eyes and then, with the gesture wolves use to express affection, begins to mouth his face. Interspersed with slurpy licks, she gently closes jaws that could crack the skull of a caribou.

The visitor throws his arms around the 90-pound animal; she rolls over on her back so that he can rub her belly.

Could it be that "Little Red Riding Hood" and "Three Little Pigs" got it wrong? That the Big, Bad Wolf isn't so bad after all?

But animals such as Cheyenne -- hybrids of dog and wolf also known as wolfdogs -- have become as controversial as they are beautiful.

While wolfdog fatalities are far fewer than those involving such breeds as the pit bull terrier, there have been a number of highly publicized recent tragedies. In New Jersey two months ago, an infant placed his arm in a kennel to pet a wolfdog with pups, only to have the animal seize his arm. When his baby sitter tried to pull the child away, the wolfdog refused to let go. In the ensuing tug of war, the child lost his arm.

The next day in Indiana, a child was mauled to death after climbing a fence and falling into the pen of his family's wolfdog and pit bull. Three weeks later in Washington state, still another child lost his arm to a wolfdog.

Several animal experts say that the wolfdogs were not at fault -- only that chaining or penning them makes them act in uncharacteristically aggressive ways. (It is commonly believed that a wolf in the wild has never attacked a human being.) Other experts say that wolfdogs are inherently dangerous because thousands of years of domestication has been undone by adding the wolf strain to dog genes.

Even those who would like to see the animals banned, however, say regulation is almost impossible because wolfdogs are often impossible to distinguish from dogs, particularly when the wolf percentage is low. Making matters more confused are the owners themselves: They range from people aware of their responsibility in owning a partly wild, partly domesticated pet to those unwilling or unable to make owning a wolfdog safe or who don't believe that the hybrids are potentially more dangerous than other dogs.


Once a feared and hated animal that was hunted almost to the point of extinction, the wolf has recently achieved popularity, reflected in movies such as "Dances With Wolves," "White Fang" and "Never Cry Wolf," which sentimentalize not only the wolf but also the wilderness that it symbolizes.

But there is nothing new about wolfdog hybridization. The Inuit have been doing it for centuries, periodically breeding the wolf's superior qualities into sled dogs. In the 19th century, Europeans bred a few wolves with German shepherds for the same reason.

"There are several reasons for their popularity," said Ann Joly, a program coordinator for the Humane Society of the United States. "Some well-intentioned but naive people use hybrids as a way of connecting with something wild and beautiful; others are into their machismo and buy them for the same reason they buy Akitas, pit bulls and Rottweilers."

It is illegal in the United States to own a purebred wolf without a federal permit, but wolfdogs (also known as wolf hybrids) such as Cheyenne, who is 95 percent pure wolf, fall between the cracks in most states. According to the U.S. government, she is a dog, and only eight states have laws governing these animals.

Estimates of the number of wolfdogs in the United States vary between 100,000 and 500,000 -- less than 1 percent of the country's 50 million dogs -- but their numbers are growing rapidly.

Even in Maryland -- one of five states in which owning a wolfdog is illegal -- animal control officials say there are at least 1,000 and perhaps several times that number.

"Last week alone, there were six complaints about them," said Lloyd Ross, director of Baltimore's Bureau of Animal Control.

The complaints turned out to be about dogs with no wolf in them, but Mr. Ross' department has destroyed three wolfdogs in recent years. Their owners could no longer handle them and brought them to the animal shelter. Because they are illegal and cannot be put up for adoption and because almost all zoos and wolf shelters will not take them, the animals are killed.

But proponents of wolfdogs say they are lovable, gentle, loyal pets whose greater intelligence makes them superior to ordinary dogs.

"When I look into Megan's eyes, I see intelligence and emotion looking back at me that I don't see in any of my collies," said Susan, a Maryland resident who owns two wolfdogs and who requested that her last name not be used.

Megan has just had a litter of pups, which Susan is selling for $125 to $200. "Everyone who buys one says the same thing, 'I've always wanted a wolf,' " she said. "They're more like a friend and equal than an ordinary dog."

Wolfdog opponents, however, say that the animals are walking genetic time bombs whose predatory instincts can easily be triggered, particularly by children.

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