Wolf-hybrids are beautiful, intelligent animals -- and potentially dangerous companions that few people can handle or adequately care for. They are often destructive and can rarely be house-trained. Determined and resourceful escape artists, they can be chillingly efficient predators.
On these points, virtually everyone agrees.
On almost all others, there's a wide range of opinion, starting with whether wolf-hybrids, which are the offspring of wolves and domestic dogs, are genetically wolves or dogs. And whether they should be allowed a place in human society at all.
"The wolf-hybrid is driven to get out, to communicate with other animals and bring back prey," said Randall Lockwood, an authority on wolves and wolf-hybrids and a vice president of the Humane Society of the United States. "We should preserve, protect and defend the wolf as a wild animal, and preserve, protect and defend the dog as a companion animal. The breeding of wolf-hybrids is hurting the wolf and hurting the dog."
Mr. Lockwood served as moderator at a recent seminar in Sacramento, Calif., sponsored by the society, where government officials, veterinarians, animal behaviorists and wolf-hybrid fanciers from around the country attempted to come to terms with the popularity of this controversial animal.
The HSUS puts the number of wolf-hybrids in the country at several hundred thousand to a million, and the number of fatal attacks against humans at five in the past two years.
For the purpose of enforcing U.S. Department of Agriculture animal-handling regulations, the federal government considers the wolf-hybrid a dog. The California state Department of Fish and Game requires a permit to own a wolf or the first-generation offspring of a wolf-dog mating. The California state Department of Health Services considers the animal to be a wolf for the purpose of rabies control.
The latter is probably the biggest concern about the animal. Although some fanciers argue that the canine vaccine provides adequate protection, there is no approved rabies vaccine for wolves or wolf-hybrids. That distinction mandates a difference in handling the animals, should even a minor bite occur.
If a vaccinated dog bites a human, it is quarantined for 10 days and observed for signs of the disease. If a wolf-hybrid bites a human, the state recommends that the animal be euthanized and its head removed and its brain analyzed to determine whether the rabies virus is present.
"We feel very uncomfortable having a population of these animals," said Kevin Reilly, California's public health veterinarian and top enforcement officer for rabies cases. "We do not know for certain if the [vaccines] work in wolf-hybrids. They may very well, but that's not good enough."
With such problems, it should come as no surprise that many states and municipalities are considering controlling or even banning wolf-hybrids. But such attempts are bogged down by the fact that there is no way to determine that an animal is indeed a wolf-hybrid. Even the most modest proposals, which call for escape-proof enclosures for the animals, could be negated by an owner who claims his pet is simply a yellow-eyed malamute mix.
All of which means the boom in wolf-hybrid numbers is likely to continue, to the dismay of animal-welfare and rescue groups. Wolf-hybrids are frequently given up as they near maturity, when the difficulties in keeping such animals become apparent.
Fearful of liability, many shelters refuse to adopt out the animals that come into their care. And the head of one rescue group said he receives thousands of calls a month from people trying to dump their hybrids.
"People just don't want to do the things that are necessary to keep these animals in happy and harmonious situations," said Bill Campbell of Wolf Haven, in Apache Junction, Ariz. Mr. Campbell's group is able to place about 20 animals a year.
And what of the others? Specialists say most will eventually pay for their popularity with their lives.
Ms. Spadafori is a licensed pet trainer in Sacramento, Calif. Questions about pets may be sent to her c/o At Home, The Sun, 501 N. Calvert St., Baltimore 21278.