BY MARCY STAMPER
Okanogan County Commissioner Sheilah Kennedy raised the alarm about wolf-dog hybrids in her testimony about protecting animals from wolf attacks before a state House committee in Olympia last month.
“Fish and Wildlife must take into consideration the situation of the wolf-hybrid,” said Kennedy. “People can buy wolves out of state, bring them in here and breed them to a Shepherd or whatever – and they’re selling them.” She pointed to ads she had found online for 90-percent wolf-content dogs.
“What happens when these hybrids get released into our public lands, and then we have a much greater problem than we have right now?” asked Kennedy.
A dog attacked by a wolf last month near Twisp was, according to some accounts, a wolf-husky mix. Shelby, one of two dogs owned by John Stevie and Sharon Willowa, who live in a remote area a few miles south of Twisp, was described in an incident report by each of the three investigators for the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife Police as a Siberian husky-wolf hybrid.
Stevie said in an interview this week that he had told the investigators that his dogs are husky mixes. “If they’re calling mine wolf hybrids, then any dog is a hybrid – even a poodle is,” said Stevie.
After the investigation, the officers concluded that Shelby’s wounds, and footprints found in the area, were consistent with a wolf attack. Stevie’s property is in the territory of the Lookout Pack of wolves. The officers recommended to Stevie and Willowa that they provide a fenced run for their dogs to reduce future conflicts and avoid maintaining a compost pile.
Stevie and the three Okanogan County commissioners all testified before the House Agriculture & Natural Resources Committee on March 20 in support of proposed legislation that would permit people to shoot a wolf that posed a threat to livestock or pets, and about a related bill that would raise money to compensate people for livestock losses. Stevie brought Shelby to the Capitol.
The commissioners stressed the importance of allowing people to protect their property, animals and families without risk of prosecution, particularly as the number of wolves in the area increases. Kennedy noted that many people keep dogs as protectors or for herding, and that keeping the dogs fenced would defeat the purpose.
Kennedy and Okanogan County commissioner Ray Campbell both expressed their concern that the next victim of a wolf attack will be a child.
Stevie said that his female dog – the one that was attacked – is allowed to be outside without restraint, but that his larger male dog – which drove off the wolf that was attacking Shelby – is typically tied up because he will wander.
“I’ve been hearing different things about my dog,” said Stevie at the start of his testimony before the House committee. “She is Siberian husky. According to some people, huskies have some wolf in them – that’s part of their heritage.”
One of the legislators had asked the Fish and Wildlife investigators about the references in the incident report to a wolf hybrid. The investigator confirmed at the hearing that he had understood the dog was a wolf hybrid.
Shelby’s wounds are now healing but the dog is not back to normal and is particularly fearful at night, said Stevie.
Diane Gallegos, executive director of Wolf Haven International, who saw Shelby at the hearing and testified in opposition to the bill, said in an interview this week that Shelby’s appearance and tiny paws were not characteristic of a wolf. Without a genetic test, it is impossible to tell, but if Shelby is a hybrid, the wolf content appeared to be very low, said Gallegos. She said that huskies are not more closely related to wolves than any other dogs are.
Concerns over wolf-dogs
Wildlife biologists and people who work with wolves agree that wolf-dogs can be a concern. “Because wolf hybrids can be difficult to distinguish from wild wolves, negative encounters between humans and hybrids often are attributed to wild wolves and therefore can impede efforts to reestablish and conserve wolves,” according to the state’s Wolf Conservation and Management Plan, which has a section on hybrids.
“Wolf hybrids and pet wolves regularly end up in the wild when their owners allow them to run free, abandon them, permanently release them, or when the animals escape,” according to the Wolf Plan. These animals are commonly reported as wolf sightings, they said.
Wolf-dogs are legal in Washington and are regulated as domestic dogs, although some cities and counties do not allow the hybrids. The Wolf Plan estimates that there were 10,000 wolf hybrids in Washington in the late 1990s.
Breeders often purchase wolves in states where they are legal and then breed them here, said Gallegos. Until 2007, it was legal for people to own a pure wolf in Washington, and the new law allowed people to retain animals they already had.
Regulating wolf-dogs is challenging and is further complicated by the presence of wild wolves, said Gallegos. Genetics from both species that would normally be separate are present in wolf-dogs, said Wendy Spencer, director of animal care for Wolf Haven International. “You have an animal that is not afraid of people but with a strong bite and strong prey drive,” said Spencer.
“People sometimes call wolf-dogs a genetic crapshoot because you never know what you’ll end up with – even in the same litter,” said Spencer. “It’s way easier to predict the behavior of a wild wolf than a wolf-dog.”
Lynne Wasson, a dog trainer who lives outside Winthrop, has had wolf-dogs for 12 years. When she lived in the Seattle area, Wasson helped a woman with a dog-rescue service with a litter of wolf-dog puppies and, when the woman could no longer keep them, Wasson took four, expecting they would otherwise be euthanized. In fact, while still living on the west side, she had as many as eight wolf hybrids.
Wasson still has three – one died last year – in a fenced enclosure on her property. While they all have different personalities, wolf-dogs in general are skittish around strangers and are much less trainable than regular dogs, she said.
“They don’t make easy pets – they’re not pets,” said Wasson. “They can be very destructive around furniture.”
Wasson takes her dogs for walks on a leash. “I would never, ever, let them off the leash thinking they would come when called. If something caught their eye, they would be gone,” she said.
Animal behavior is unpredictable, but there is nothing that would make it more likely for a wolf to interact with a wolf-dog than a regular dog, said Christopher Pachel, a veterinary behaviorist in Portland.
Pachel said that, without witnessing an interaction, it is impossible to tell what transpired. “It’s like seeing the remnants of a bar fight and guessing about what the fight was about,” he said.
People spend thousands of dollars on wolf-dogs and bottle-feed them, doing everything possible to socialize them, but the animals often start to exhibit undesirable behaviors when they reach maturity – at about 22 months – and become difficult to manage. Many of the dogs at Wolf Haven came from situations like this, said Gallegos. They currently have 50 animals at their sanctuary near Olympia, mainly wolves but also some wolf-dogs.
“Adding hybrids in makes it harder for people to understand the true nature of wolves, and makes it more difficult to work with livestock producers and others concerned about wolves in the state,” said Gallegos.
The bills regarding wolf conflicts and compensation have not come up for a vote in the Legislature.
Photo by Marcy Stamper: Lynne Wasson still has the wolf-dogs she adopted 12 years ago to help out someone with a dog-rescue service. Chinook (standing) and Kiawa are both very friendly, but Wasson said she does not let the dogs run free because they cannot be relied on to come when called.