A mixed dog in wolf's clothing

Breeders take a walk on the wild side to create a bloodline that’s both cuddly and dangerous

By Joe Garner, Rocky Mountain News

The eyes track you.

Wary, primitive eyes.

Luminescent golden eyes.

The eyes of a wolf in the guise of a dog. The animal’s bloodline seems to flow simultaneously cuddly and fierce.

How do you react to this exotic animal nuzzling you?

Is it a dog or a wolf, and how can you know?

“Your beagle at home is essentially a wolf, genetically,” said Ed Bangs, the Montana-based wolf recovery coordinator for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

“All dogs came from wolves.”

Wolves were reintroduced at Yellowstone National Park in 1995.

Almost a decade later, in 2004, a wolf wearing a radio collar identifying it as a member of that pack was found dead on Interstate 70 near Idaho Springs.

Last month, another animal identified as a migrating wolf was videotaped in northern Colorado, almost 500 miles from the park.

Such sightings inflame passions about the animals across the West.

Stockmen and woolgrowers oppose the return of wolves to the mountains where they were nearly exterminated after the first settlers arrived in the 19th century.

But, some admirers of the animals, who want their own badge of the outdoors, trade in wolves and wolf-dog mixes, serving the market for pups advertised to grow up on the wild side.

“There’s the macho man who thinks he’s hot stuff driving to town in his Hummer with a wolf dog on the front seat,” Frank Wendland said.

He and his wife, Pat Wendland, operate a Larimer County sanctuary for wolves and wolf-dogs that is called WOLF, an acronym for Wolves Offered Life and Friendship.

And, Pat Wendland said, “It’s not just macho males. It’s macha females who want to be seen with these animals.”

The Wendlands, and others who work with wolves, estimate that there are about 30,000 wolf-dogs in Colorado – perhaps 10 percent of maybe 300,000 captive wolves and wolf-dogs in private hands nationwide.

The trade in such animals is legal in Colorado, although some counties and cities prohibit ownership of wolves or crossbreeds, the Wendlands said.

In the wild, interbreeding is unlikely.

“A domesticated dog is more likely to be lunch for a wolf than a mating partner,” said Joe Lewandowski, a spokesman for the Colorado Division of Wildlife.

“In captivity, they can be bred, but in the wild, we never have had a wild wolf breed with a domesticated dog.”

Mixed-breed pups born in captivity, usually in a litter as small as two or as large as seven, are priced from $500 to $2,500, the Wendlands said.

Typically, the more wolf in the pup, the higher the price, they said. However, in the alternative, if the seller sizes up the buyer as someone who wants a more-domesticated pet, the less wolf in the pup, the higher the price, they said.

“What most people are looking for is a dog in wolf’s clothing,” Pat Wendland said. “They want an animal that looks like a wolf but acts like a dog.”

In addition to the macho male and macha female who draw attention when they parade a wolf or a crossbreed in public, Frank Wendland said, the animals also appeal “to tree-huggers who want to bring a little bit of nature into their high-rise apartments.”

“We, as human beings, whether we like it or not, still have wild parts in our psyche that we have become disconnected from,” he said. “We’re looking to reconnect with that wild side of ourselves.”

The link between humans and wolves is primordial. In Roman mythology, Romulus and his twin brother, Remus, left to die in the Tiber River, were suckled by a she-wolf.

In fairy tales, the better to scare and instruct children, wolves star in the Three Little Pigs and Little Red Riding Hood.

“Today, in urban society, people still want a direct connection to the wild,” said Rob Edward of Sinapu, a Boulder-based advocacy group for wolves and other carnivores. “Wolves are beautiful. They are cool. They are good providers for their families,” Edward said.

“They can teach human beings a lot.”

The Wendlands share their mountain home with a pack of four wolf-dog mixes, a fifth animal thought to be pure wolf and sixth animal thought to be pure dog.

“They don’t live with us,” Frank Wendland said.

“We live with them. We live within their guidelines. We live in their society versus their being pets.”

The house rule is: Show affection to the animals and pet them, but do not play with the animals because play quickly can turn to competition in which nature rules.

“Domesticated dogs have been bred to be perpetually puppies,” Pat Wendland said. “They never reach the final stages of maturity.”

Even the cutest wolf-dog pies can grow into snarling adults, with bad dispositions, as they reach sexual maturity after two years of age – especially if the animals have been suburbanized so they cannot range up to 40 miles a day, as wolves do in nature.Left home alone, the puppies cannot follow their instinct to travel with a pack so they vent their frustrations on a sofa.

“People try to get rid of wolf-dog hybrids because they make bad pets,” Bangs said.

But, he said, “To release these animals into the wild is the cruelest thing you could do” because they have not grown to maturity learning to fend for themselves.

Among wolf advocates, the solution is simply not to put your hand in the murky genetic pool of interbred animals: If you want a dog, get a dog.

“We hope to see the day when having a captive wolf or wolf-hybrid is as socially unacceptable as smoking,” Edward said.

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