Understandably so, I cannot deny that the rescues at Wild Spirit Wolf Sanctuary, or the animals seen in the photos posted on social media, are beautiful. For many, wolves, as fiercely strong, intricately social, visually stunning predators, inspire awe, curiosity, and fondness. So, I can understand why people would be interested in getting close to these animals. It has been human nature for centuries to gather what we admire and find valuable. Take a flower, for example: We do not hesitate to pick or to buy flowers that we see as lovely, and we take them into our home to exhibit, to appreciate, and to care for until they wilt.
Unfortunately, one of the main reasons Wild Spirit Wolf Sanctuary exists as a rescue organization is due to people breeding, selling, and buying wolf-dogs as pets. Then, only too late, the realization dawns for the majority of buyers that wolf-dogs in fact do not make good pets; that in fact, wolf-dogs are not merely dogs that look and sound like wolves while behaving as humans have come to expect of our dog companions; that in fact, breeding together a domesticated animal with a wild one does not remove the inherent wildness, or the instinctual behaviors, desires, and needs.
To fully understand why wolf-dogs are not well suited to be pets and why Wild Spirit Wolf Sanctuary opposes the ownership of wolf-dogs and other related wild canid species, perhaps it would be best to go backwards in time to when the domestic dog did not yet exist.
First, however, let us define what a wild animal is, specifically as it pertains to a wolf: Simplified, a wild animal is one that does not require human collaboration or involvement at any level in order to survive. Wolves are sentient, intelligent creatures capable of self-sovereignty and problem-solving. They decide when and with whom they mate in accordance to the species’ heat cycles, they hunt and scavenge, and they cooperate within complex social familial packs. Wolves successfully do all of this without human interference, and, in fact, wolves are able not only to operate and survive but thrive separately from humanity.
Compare that to a domesticated animal, which is an animal that relies at some level on humans for resources, such as food, water, or shelter. Domesticated animals not only require human cooperation to access what is needed for survival, but they actually flourish living collaboratively with humanity.
Domestication is a long, biological process that leads to an entirely different subspecies of an animal. While the domestic dog (canis lupus familiaris) descends from a now extinct species of grey wolf (canis lupus), how dogs are predisposed to interact with their environment is drastically different. Dogs, for example, prefer and expect to have food and shelter provided to them by people, they rely on human caregivers, too, for affection, entertainment, and direction. This is no surprise, however, as domestic pet dogs have been bred specifically to be companions, to work subserviently to accomplish specialized tasks, such as hunting, herding, guarding, or guiding. Compare that to wild wolves that have absolutely no interest in the needs or desires of people, and therefore they naturally will not collaborate or obey humans.
As far back as 10,000-40,000 years ago, people began to cultivate a different relationship with wild wolves, which ultimately led to the evolution of wolf to dog. There are three major theories on how this relationship came to be:
First, is the “Scavenging Theory,” which states that wolves started to scavenge for food from human trash dumps, and this occurred long enough to instigate a transition of the wolves’ own anatomy and physiology into what we now know as the dog.
The second theory is the “Human Domination Theory,” which suggests that people began to capture wolf puppies to tame and acclimate them to humans. Slowly, people then began to selectively breed the raised pups with desirable traits, such as submissiveness, curiosity towards people, and receptiveness towards human command and emotion. Therefore, according to this theory, it was human dominance over the wolf that was responsible for the evolution of wolves into dogs. Intentionally, the domestic pet dog was created from the wolf, and this was pursued despite the wants and needs of the animals involved.
The third theory is the “Coevolution Theory,” which suggests that wolves and humans entered into a mutually beneficial relationship over time. The collaboration increased the effectiveness and successfulness for each to acquire necessary resources, such as food. From this standpoint, domestication happened more slowly and somewhat inadvertently at first, as the wolf became a dog that proceeded to live with humans.
Regardless of how the dog came to be man’s best friend, it is undeniable how different our domestic pet dogs are to their wolf ancestor. Our pups are found sharing our beds, wearing cutesy clothes, guarding our homes, and running agility courses at the discretion of the human leader. Wolves, on the other hand, naturally want nothing to do with humans as a perceived predator and threat. Independent, strong-willed, and innately afraid of people, wolves would rather escape proximity to you than guard, obey, or affectionately engage with you.
While undoubtedly dogs make wonderful pets, genetically mixing the modern grey wolf back into the gene pool of a dog generally leads to very unideal circumstances. The wolf-dog, as this mixed animal is known, is a living contradiction struggling on a spectrum from wild animal to domesticated. Wild Spirit Wolf Sanctuary identifies wolf-dog rescues via “content level.” The animal is observed, and based upon its physical traits and personality the content level is determined, which ranges from high- to medium- to low-content. The higher the content level, the more physical traits of a wolf and the more personality characteristics of a wolf are observed in comparison to a dog. Then vice versa is true for the low-content level.
Wolf-dogs are the result of a grey wolf and a domestic dog mating, and the wolf-dog status is maintained over several generations. Because the domestic dog is categorized as a subspecies of the grey wolf, dogs and wolves are genetically very closely related and therefore have no issues with procreation. In fact, the genetic difference between a wolf and a dog is about 0.02%.
While wolf-dogs are often called “hybrids,” it is best to clarify that they are classified as an intra-species hybrid and not the commonly known interspecies hybrid, for example, a mule, which is the offspring of a horse and a donkey. Interspecies hybrids are an entirely new biological species created by breeding two unrelated species. Furthermore, they commonly share three distinctive traits: 1. Hybrid vigor; 2. Infertility; and 3. Naturally not occurring without human intervention or artificial insemination (or the likelihood is extremely rare).
Ligers are another excellent example of an interspecies hybrid, as the offspring of a lion and a tiger. Ligers well display the trait of hybrid vigor, which entails that the hybrid is larger and/or stronger than either parent animal; in this case, the liger is much bigger and is generally stronger than the lion or the tiger.
Wolf-dogs do not exhibit any of the three commonly observed traits associated with interspecies hybrids. They are not sterile; a wolf-dog’s size and strength varies, and often times a larger size is associated with the breed of dog introduced into the genetic line; finally, wolves mating with dogs can occur naturally in the wild. In captive situations, wolves, dogs, and wolf-dogs are generally bred to obtain more wolf-dogs to sell as pets. Regrettably, wolves used in the exotic pet trade are typically den-robbed, meaning the puppies are stolen from wolf dens when the parents and pack are away. Not only is this cruel, but possession of any species of wolf in the United States is a federal offense and punishable by law.
Wolves are an incredibly social species, and they rely heavily upon the unity of the pack to survive. Furthermore, wolf packs primarily consist of family members with the breeding pair, a.k.a. mom and dad, tirelessly leading the others day-to-day. As such, the bonds between pack members are incredibly strong, and every wolf within the family shares the responsibility of raising the new litter each year. Therefore, the act of stealing the puppies causes immeasurable stress and grief for the parents as well as the pack.
As you can see, captive-bred wolf-dogs come from an illegal and immoral practice, and they are often sold to people with misinformation. Buyers are typically fed the lie that the puppy they are purchasing will be just like a dog while looking like the majestic wolf so adored. The true nature of the wolf-dog puppy, including its content level, will not be known until it reaches sexually maturity between 2 and 4 years of age. Wolf-dogs commonly undergo what Wild Spirit Wolf Sanctuary has termed the “adulthood shift,” which is an observable transition of the animal from juvenile to adult. Unlike our domestic pet dogs that experience neoteny, which is part of the domestication process, wolves and wolf-dogs mature out of the submissive, willing-to-listen-to-leaders-blindly (including people when the animals live in captivity), and other behaviors associated with youth. Instead, adult wolves and wolf-dogs make their own decisions, they are immensely intelligent and resolute, and often times being told, “No” by the human ends very poorly.
Many of our rescues come to Wild Spirit Wolf Sanctuary between the ages of 2 and 4 in correlation to sexual maturity and the adulthood shift. This is in part because wolf and wolf-dog puppies, regardless of content level, will behave much the same as a very energetic domestic dog puppy. However, the average owner is not generally equipped to properly care for and handle an adult wolf-dog, resulting often in the neglect, abandonment, surrender, or euthanasia of the animal. It’s important to note, too, that it can be difficult to determine the content level of a young animal and how that will manifest as personality in adulthood. Furthermore, the content level of the parents do not guarantee the content level of the offspring, and, in fact, the content levels for the entire litter can vary. Finally, content level does not equal disposition or behavior.
Now that we have reviewed the differences between a wolf and a domestic dog, the contradictory existence of the wolf-dog becomes quite clear. Two very different instinctual drives are being combined within a single animal, and this mix of oil and water leads to a critter that is generally inconsistent with needs, wants, and overall behavior.
Our rescue Zeus provides an excellent example of this inconsistency and subsequent unpredictability observable in wolf-dogs. Zeus is a mid-content wolf-dog who does not always feel comfortable with human interaction, therefore he calls all the shots when it comes to socialization of any kind. At times, Zeus requests to be pet, which caregivers provide through the safety of the habitat fence prior to entering or after leaving the habitat. However, Zeus has been known to change his mind abruptly and with minimal-to-no warning, spurred by his wolf instincts to avoid the human predator. Confusion inspires quick responses with snaps, growls, or Zeus scuttling away from the fence altogether. This reaction may occur mid-pet, and suddenly Zeus is on the defensive.
Reactivity due to confusion, fear, or over-excitement become problematic within an enclosure, or within someone’s house, as the animal has no way to escape or not enough comfortable space to put between it and the perceived human threat. At Wild Spirit Wolf Sanctuary, we understand this dilemma and are able to respond to Zeus’ needs, in this example, by utilizing the fence line and not engaging directly with Zeus within the habitat even if he were to request it. This assures safety for all.
Our staff and volunteers are extensively trained on how to read these shifts in mood and the subtler body language cues, but we still have to be very careful. In comparison, much of the general public do not have the experience or capacity to provide that level of response. This unfortunately leads to people and animals getting hurt. Consequently, the wolves and wolf-dogs involved with such instances usually receive the punishment, and the exotic wild pets are then often caged or chained and neglected, abandoned, euthanized, or, when lucky, surrendered to a sanctuary or rescue organization like Wild Spirit Wolf Sanctuary. The abusive outcomes for the misunderstood animals are not ones we want for any living creature. Therefore, as an organization, we cannot support wolf-dogs or other wild, exotic animals as pets.
Even low-content animals possess the potential for very erratic and unstable behavior, which can lead to the animal’s misfortune. Of course, the experiences of the Wild Spirit Wolf Sanctuary Team are not all inclusive. There have been rare cases when very low-content wolf-dogs have existed just fine within a human home, but even then the possibility of the inherent wild nature to unleash within that home and upon the human owner or other people is not 0%. It is also impossible for staff to confirm whether such cases included the happiness and wellness of the animal as opposed to merely acceptance of circumstance. Nevertheless, ownership of wolf-dogs still supports the deplorable practices involved with the exotic pet trade, and therefore Wild Spirit Wolf Sanctuary will always advise against and oppose wolf-dogs as pets.
To best provide for the unique animals that are wolf-dogs, a creature that is both part wild and part domestic, a specialized home that is also both wild and domestic is vital. Wild Spirit Wolf Sanctuary is fortunate to provide this specialized space to our captive-bred, wild canid species by supplying large habitats, species-appropriate and nutritionally balanced diets, enrichment, as well as the human interaction that some animals may crave. The care we give to each of our rescues is specialized, complicated, but entirely based on an individual animal’s needs and wants from day-to-day, and from moment-to-moment.
While we may regard wolves, wolf-dogs, and other exotic wild animals with the same level of awe and adoration as others, the Wild Spirit Wolf Sanctuary Team recognizes that picking a flower, beautiful as it might be, will inevitably lead to its demise. If we truly love the flower, we will not pick it. Instead, we might gaze upon it in its place of birth where we can see it flourish and exist. Help us to spread the word to keep wild animals wild! Wolves and wolf-dogs are not flowers to be picked.