The direwolves who bound through HBO’s Game of Thrones sprang from the imagination of author George R. R. Martin, who wrote the bestselling books on which the popular program is based. (Real-world dire wolves —Canis dirus, or “fearsome dog”—became extinct at the end of the Pleistocene and are not considered to be the direct ancestor of any modern canine species.)
In early 2015, media sources began to blame Game of Thrones for nurturing wolfdog ownership. Apparently, people trying to replicate a fictional experience at home were seeking out dogs with wolf content. Too late, many of these people learned that caring for a wolfdog, as the type is called, is nothing like living with a domesticated dog.
A wolfdog is defined as the result of the mating of any domestic dog with one of the four wolf subspecies: gray, eastern timber, red, and Ethiopian; gray wolf is the most common. While many states, such as California, have banned first-generation wolfdog ownership, others, such as Maine, allow it as long as the owner obtains proper wildlife permits. Regardless of its legality, many new owners are finding wolfdogs to be Allison Kern/Courtesy of Howling Woods Farm too much work and responsibility to handle. As a result, the number of wolfdogs being abandoned or forced into shelters and sanctuaries is on the rise.
Nicole Wilde, who holds Certified Professional Dog Trainer credentials, has been working with and caring for wolves and wolfdogs for nearly 20 years. Author of Living with Wolfdogs and several other helpful texts detailing dog ownership and training, Wilde says she understands the enthusiast’s attraction to these animals. “For some, it’s a pure love of wolves; they simply want to be close to these magnificent animals. For others, it’s the lure of owning something wild or exotic,” Wilde said.
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Christie Guidry, manager of Saint Francis Wolf Sanctuary in Montgomery, Texas, said she hesitates to believe that wolfdog adopters are simply seeking a family animal. “We find that the idea of having exotic wild animals as pets is usually about someone wanting to be able to claim that they have tamed the wild, or because a domestic dog is too mainstream for them. It is often about ego, status or because it’s cool,” said Guidry.
Wolfdogs As Pets
In reality, caring for a wolfdog often has little to do with building family relationships. Cindy Matthews of Virginia has owned wolfdogs for nearly 10 years and knows the toll this responsibility can take on a family. “My sons, who were raised with them, will never [have] a wolfdog when they get older, as they’ve seen how much hard work it is to care for one,” Matthews said. “These are not the type of animals that can be kept like an indoor dog.”
Unlike a domestic dog, a wolfdog cannot simply be taken to a kennel. Few kennels have the capacity to contain them, since they require eight-foot-high fences as well as dig guards along the base of their enclosures to prevent escape. And because they’re naturally wary of strangers, it’s unlikely that friends or neighbors would be able to look after the animal in the owner’s absence. “Don’t plan on taking any vacations,” said Matthews.
Wolfdogs Are Not for Most Dog Owners
With the rise in popularity of wolfdog ownership comes the inevitable rise in abandonment and returns as those who buy them realize that they either cannot or do not want to provide the resources and attention the canines require.
While breeding facilities profit from mating and selling wolfdogs, sanctuaries suffer from a lack of resources, which prevents them from accepting the large number of hybrids who are surrendered. Most sanctuaries, which are usually operated as nonprofits, are almost entirely funded by private donations. Guidry works tirelessly to ensure care for all of the abandoned wolfdogs who come to Saint Francis Wolf Sanctuary, but there is only so much space available.
“On average, we get about three requests a week to rescue wolves and wolfdogs from pet situations,” Guidry said. “Since wolves are born in the spring, we do not get as many requests that time of year. People keep them when they are cute, cuddly pups [but] as soon as they reach adulthood, they can no longer handle them.”
Michael Hodanish, president of the Howling Woods Farm sanctuary, has noticed the same upward trend at his facility, which is located in Jackson, N.J. He cites funding as the reason he cannot accept all the animals for whom he receives rescue requests, and says it’s the biggest challenge facing Howling Woods Farm today.
Hodanish, who is devoted to helping animals and owners get out of bad living situations, has had to go beyond relying on donations to find ways to fund his services. “I have a full-time job that pays for a significant amount of rescue costs,” he said.
Hodanish also remarked that an increase in breeding practices is the main reason for the increasing numbers of rescue requests. “We do not support wolfdog breeding [at Howling Woods Farm],” Hodanish said.
Wilde agreed. “Wolfdog rescue centers are perpetually full, and an unwanted wolfdog’s options are extremely limited.”
Howling Woods Farm attempts to rehome its rescued wolfdogs whenever possible, but the adoption application process is rigorous. Hodanish said the sanctuary hopes that more vigorous screening and stricter home requirements will help prevent the cycle of animals being surrendered to shelters.
“We have rehomed approximately 150 animals over the last 10 years. Some have taken over a year to place,” Hodanish said.
With rescue requests increasing and rehoming processes taking as long as they do, not every wolfdog will be given a second chance.
“Wolfdog rescues all over this country are full most of the time, so we see countless wolfdogs euthanized in shelters. Shelters will not adopt them out due to liability issues. It’s a heartbreaking problem,” Guidry said.
Besides taking in abandoned wolfdogs, sanctuaries also play a large role in providing education to the public. “We feel there are no benefits to ‘owning’ a wolfdog over a conventional dog breed,” Guidry said. “The most rewarding part of my job is educating the public on the challenges of exotic pet ownership.”
Sanctuaries often provide facility tours as well as off-site visits to schools and other organizations so that individuals can learn how wolves differ from domestic dogs.
“Wild wolves are the epitome of what it means to be wild and free. They have a right to live that life. The fact that people try to numb out their wild instincts by breeding dog into them just to make them pets is terribly sad,” Guidry said. Wilde said it is not the wolves, but rather, the owners who are the most challenging aspect in her role as an educator and trainer. “So many people have unrealistic expectations of what living with a wolfdog will be like …Wolf lovers would do well to support organizations that are helping wolves in the wild,” she said.
In providing information, sanctuaries hope to convince those who love wolves that the best way to respect and show dedication to these animals is to let them remain wild and decrease the number of wolfdogs being bred for profit. Only then can these animals live out the lives that they were meant to have, free from containment.