What Do Wolfdogs Want?

The animals are a human creation. They belong neither in homes nor in the wild.

A wolfdog
Contributor / Getty

Shadow did not want to be caged. Sylphlike and snow colored, the animal paced her closet-size concrete-and-wire enclosure, ears pinned back, body tense, back and forth, back and forth, back and forth. Nor did the small town of Tooele, Utah, want to keep her caged. It did not want her there at all.

Shadow is a wolfdog—a wolf-dog hybrid. That makes her an exotic animal in the eyes of Tooele’s law enforcement, ineligible for residence in a family home. Many states ban wolfdogs, as do many municipalities, since they require more resources and pose more danger than your average pup. “It is like having a toddler for a decade,” said Steve Wastell of Apex Protection Project, a wolfdog-rescue group based in Southern California. A toddler with jaws strong enough to shatter a moose femur. Still, like sugar gliders and pythons, wolfdogs have an enduring, cultish following among pet owners. An estimated 250,000 of them live as pets in the United States.

Many wolfdogs make wonderful family companions, and it seemed like Shadow might be one of them. Just a few minutes after meeting me, she let me scratch the top of her head and smooth down her coat. But when a wolfdog does not make a wonderful family pet, when it is too skittish or prey driven or high energy for a domestic environment, the consequences are often dangerous, if not fatal, for the wolfdogs, and sometimes for their owners, too. Only certain homes make sense for these animals—homes with experienced owners and strong fences.

A recent legal decision holds, in effect, that no home makes sense for them: Last year, Judge Joan N. Ericksen of the U.S. District Court of Minnesota extended Endangered Species Act (ESA) protections to the wolfdogs held captive on a Minnesota fur farm and petting zoo (yes, both). Now, Matt Simmons, a cofounder of the Lockwood Animal Rescue Center (LARC) and a party to the litigation, is seeking to use that finding to end the wolfdog trade entirely.

The legal fight about how humans should treat wolfdogs orbits a more philosophical argument about the nature of wolfdogs themselves. Domestic dogs thrive in the backyard and at the foot of the bed. Wolves thrive on the hunt in the country’s wildlands. But where do wolfdogs thrive? What do they want? What laws—whose laws—should apply to them? I thought about that as I watched Shadow pace in her cage, a dog barking incessantly in another room. At one point, she let out a long, cantillating howl. Instantly, the shelter fell silent.

There is some irony in the fact that humans are breeding the wolf back into the dog. Forty thousand years ago, give or take, dogs began to differentiate themselves from wolves through self-selection. Later, humans became actively involved in making dogs doggy—social, trainable, tractable, and cute—through selective breeding. Today, Homo sapiens is the main heuristic separating Canis lupus and Canis lupus familiaris, who are one species and share roughly 99 percent of their DNA. Wolves are afraid of humans, whereas dogs are not. Wolves hunt game, whereas dogs scavenge human leftovers or eat what their human companions put out for dinner. Wolves are not great at following human commands, whereas dogs are brilliant at it.

“Where there are people, dogs outcompete,” Kathryn Lord, an evolutionary biologist, told me. “Wolves have no hope of outcompeting a dog in a domestic environment—scavenging trash, living around livestock. Where there are no people, wolves outcompete. A dog has no hope of outcompeting a wolf in a wild environment.” Around the time that humans were breeding into existence animals like the Cavalier King Charles spaniel, they were massacring their wild cousins to near extinction. With humans as the planet’s terrifyingly dominant apex predator, dogs thrived and wolves disappeared.

Only in the past half century have humans started producing wolf-dog hybrids for domestic ownership on any kind of scale in the United States. People started breeding dogs with captive wolves on fur farms in the 1940s, Nancy LaPorta Brown, a longtime North Carolina wolfdog rescuer, told me. (Fur farms raise animals for their pelts; mink farming is most common in the United States.) The trade grew from there. “I remember working with a breeder who was buying wolves out of the back doors of zoos,” she said.

Today, scores of breeders across the United States mate wolfdog with wolfdog and sell the puppies, for as much as $5,000 each. The animals surged in popularity recently thanks to Game of Thrones, which featured mythical “direwolves,” and Instagram, which has dozens of popular wolfdog accounts. Many breeders are scrupulous, keeping detailed husbandry records, selecting for good temperament and health, and selling only to vetted clients. But others are unscrupulous—they have no sense of how much wolf DNA is in a given animal, and are willing to sell to anyone with the cash on Craigslist.

Wolfdogs are not the kind of animal anyone should be picking up on Craigslist. They are superior athletes, for one. “Think about wolves, who have territories of 800 square miles and run at 35 or 40 miles an hour,” Nicole Wilde, a canine behavior specialist, told me. “A 15-minute potty walk? That’s not going to cut it. Even with the northern [dog] breeds, huskies in particular, people have no idea how much exercise they need.” If that exercise is not forthcoming, wolfdogs tend to make it up themselves. One wolfdog in Simmons’s care, for instance, chewed through the drywall in his owner’s home and let himself into the garage. He then partially destroyed his owner’s car.

They also tend to be intelligent, and more diffident and less obsequious around humans than dogs are. Apex’s Wastell told me that some wolfdogs he’s encountered do not obey commands like “Sit,” not because they are incapable of learning them but because they are unmotivated to perform them. And some share of wolfdogs are, like their wild cousins, terrified of humans. They shy away from their owners, no matter how patient and kind.

Wolfdog personalities are often highly unpredictable, too. High-content wolfdogs—that is, ones with lots of wolf DNA—tend to be more wolflike; low-content wolfdogs tend to be more doglike. (Though wolves and dogs are genetically very similar, scientists are able to distinguish between the two in DNA tests, and can reliably ascertain how much wolf and how much dog there is in a given wolfdog.) But that is not always true. Some wolfdogs look just like wolves but act like golden retrievers, happy and food motivated and snuggly. Some look like German shepherds but act like zoo animals, tortured by confinement.

“You have no way of knowing what mixture of dog behavior and wolf behavior you have in your animal,” said Clive Wynne, a psychologist at Arizona State University and the author of the book Dog Is Love. “You could spend years living with this animal, a beautiful and maybe a bit aloof doglike companion. Then one day your sister or brother brings around your new niece or nephew and snap, there is an incident that is gonna really spoil everybody’s afternoon.”

Susan Weidel, the rescue coordinator at Colorado’s Wolves Offered Life and Freedom (W.O.L.F.) Sanctuary, told me about a young wolfdog she was racing to save. “His owner didn’t know what she was doing. He escaped multiple times because she didn’t have the right containment and he lives in an illegal area,” she said. “Over Thanksgiving, he killed a beagle in front of its owner. It was brutal.” Such animals are almost always euthanized, she said.

Wolfdogs hurt people, too. One I met had been in his enclosure when a child put her hand under the fence. He took off two of the girl’s fingers. Mauling deaths are rare, but they do happen. In 1999, a Michigan wolfdog killed a four-year-old boy by crushing his trachea. In 2018, a Virginia wolfdog killed a newborn in its bassinet. The Centers for Disease Control found that wolfdogs were responsible for 7 percent of deaths related to dog bites between 1979 and 1996, despite being just a tiny sliver of the overall dog population.

The risk that people pose to wolfdogs is far greater, statistically, than the risk that wolfdogs pose to people. Many are bred in miserable, inhumane conditions, and kept in equally miserable, inhumane conditions. Because they are challenging to keep, wolfdogs are often abused, LARC’s Simmons told me. On his property, shaggy Sadira had a visibly offset jaw; she’d been kicked in the face by her previous owner. Dark-coated Luna had had one of her ears cut off as “punishment.” Wastell of Apex said his team has rescued wolfdogs who had spent their entire lives in crates and chains, because their owners could not handle them. “The cruelty in some of the situations that we have personally been in—the feces on the floor, the bone-thin animals,” he said. “One we rescued last year had no fur on his body.” Rescuers estimate that between 60 and 70 percent of wolfdogs are abandoned or put down.

For all that, I could see why these animals are popular. Shadow was numinous, her eyes gold flecked and her white coat as rich as a Russian novel. “They’re the Jaguars of the dog world. They’re the Ferraris,” Brown, the North Carolina wolfdog rescuer, told me. “They’re for people who don’t want a froufrou dog.”

Wolfdog owners say they appreciate the animals’ extraordinary physical beauty and enjoy meeting the challenges posed by a part-wild animal. Many mention their abiding interest in wolves. Others say they see themselves as stewards more than owners, who like having to earn an animal’s trust and affection. “I had always wanted wolfdogs,” said Norma Brady, who owns three. “It’s so different. It’s just really different than any normal dog I’ve ever had.”

The question of what to do with these “different” animals is existential for the hundreds of thousands of wolfdogs in private ownership in the United States, and hotly debated among the humans who love them.

Many wolfdog advocates are pushing for them to be legally deregulated and culturally mainstreamed. “Look, I live, walk, eat, breathe, and shit wolfdogs,” Brown told me. “Ninety-five percent of the wolfdogs in America and Europe are the products of many generations of wolfdog-to-wolfdog breeding. They’re not half this and half that. They’re not exotic animals, and they’re not hybrids. They’re domestic animals. They’re incapable of surviving in the wild.” She put it bluntly: “They’re dogs.”

Other rescuers and owners want wolfdogs to be classified as a canine breed, the “lupine dog.” That would mean establishing a standard for looks and behavior, breeding wolfdogs toward that standard, and seeking recognition from the American Kennel Club. “We want the animals to be stable, temperament wise and health wise,” Rose Pospisil of the World of Lupines Foundation told me. “You need to have the lineage. You need to have health testing. You need to know what mixture of breeds are in the animal now. We’re moving in that direction.”

But other activists are pushing hard for the opposite: recommending against private ownership, arguing for state and local bans, and even suggesting that wolfdogs should not exist at all (unless wolves and dogs breed in the wild). Leyton J. Cougar of the Wild Spirit Wolf Sanctuary said he particularly opposed the effort to mold wolfdogs through intensive, selective breeding. “How long is it going to take and how many lost souls are there going to be between now and when you get your perfect product?” he asked me.

Matt Simmons of LARC has pushed the radical-prohibition strategy: No more wolfdogs, for anyone, ever. A few years ago, LARC and the Animal Legal Defense Fund (ALDF) filed a lawsuit against a Minnesota facility called Fur-Ever Wild, a petting zoo  where horrific acts of cruelty were taking place, animal advocates alleged. As part of the litigation, Judge Ericksen ruled that the facility’s animals, wolves with small amounts of dog DNA, were protected under the ESA. Fur-Ever Wild agreed to stop trading in wolf body parts and relinquished its animals.

The ALDF saw the decision as a victory for the protection of gray wolves, like the ones in Yellowstone, Christopher Berry, a senior staff attorney at the defense fund, told me. “It closed a detrimental loophole to the Endangered Species Act that [the Minnesota] facility and others were trying to exploit.” Absent the ruling, he said, a roadside zoo could have kept wolves with minuscule amounts of dog DNA in order to avoid ESA protections. (The Trump administration is attempting to remove gray wolves from the endangered-species list.) But Simmons saw the decision as an opening to file suit against wolfdog breeders and traders. He wants to use the ESA to prevent wolfdogs from being bought and sold across state lines. “We’re going to turn that valve off,” he said. “That’s the route to stop the breeding of wolfdogs in America.”

The argument against the Simmons approach is the same argument used against bans of all sorts: What if it pushes the trade onto the black market and leads to more animal abuse and euthanasia, not less? People wouldn’t stop having wolfdogs. People wouldn’t stop mating them, given the prices they fetch. But rescuing them would become more difficult. “We have thought long and hard about whether we should come out for making it illegal,” Weidel, of the W.O.L.F. Sanctuary, told me. “All it will do is force the breeding underground and we will have less access to be able to save animals. There will be fewer places for animals to go.”

The United States has checkered laws protecting endangered animals and exotic animals not on the endangered-species list, with the federal government often deferring to the states. Those laws are difficult to enforce, as Shadow’s captivity in the Tooele shelter shows, and not much of a priority for law enforcement one way or another. The country’s have-it-if-you-want-it legal stance has allowed the trade in exotic pets to thrive, while the internet has greased sales. Slow lorises, servals, capybaras, bearded dragons, wolves and wolfdogs, lions, bears, and tigers: They are all just a click away.

Just because you can keep a serval or a bear or a wolf as a pet does not mean that you should. Natural selection hones animals to thrive in specific environments. Human animals forcing nonhuman animals to live outside of those specific environments—that is torture. Wolves want to be wolves. Servals want to be servals. Bears want to be bears. And it is impossible to be a wolf or a serval or a bear when living in a cage.

I asked Wynne, the researcher of canine psychology, what kind of an environment he thought would be ideal for wolfdogs. What kind of homes would they want, if they could tell us what they wanted? He paused for a moment. “What constitutes a good life for an animal? Biologists would say that any sterilized animal is functionally deceased, whereas a veterinarian would have a quite different opinion.” He said he believes that many wild animals live “adequate” lives in captivity, though not an ideal life; then again, he pointed out, wild wolves often die before their fourth birthday, but wolves in captivity often live into their teens. “It gets philosophical,” he said.

Wolfdog philosophy is complicated because wolfdog ontology is complicated: The animals in question are a human creation, bred for human ego and sold for human desire, crosses of creatures adapted for the wild and creatures adapted for cohabitation with humans. They are mercurial. They are unnatural. Nobody could tell me what wolfdogs, in general, want and need, because nobody really knows.

Instead, good owners and rescuers are left to determine what each particular wolfdog wants and needs, through the observation and translation of howls and ear twitches. Norma Brady’s pets require a large, elaborate enclosure, so she built them a large, elaborate enclosure, including an adobe-like dog house. Her high-content wolfdog, Archer, loves kids. He is trustworthy in the house. But, she said, it is still “so much work” to keep him happy and stimulated.

As for Shadow: The Tooele shelter got connected with Weidel, the wolfdog-rescue coordinator, through Facebook. She raised hundreds of dollars to get Shadow transported to a safe home in Alabama, just before Christmas. I watched as Shadow was placed in a crate, panicked and trying to bolt, in Tooele. Soon after, she arrived at her new home in the South. This was a happy ending, of sorts.

But many wolfdog owners are not good owners, and they become overwhelmed and threatened by the creatures they have chosen to possess. The country’s laws do not adequately protect humans from wolfdogs. Nor do they protect wolfdogs from humans. Nobody wanted to talk on the record about buying and then destroying a wolfdog. But Weidel talked about the heartbreak of not being able to help so many of the animals she encounters. “It is not their fault,” she said. Every year, thousands of the animals are put down, often just after outgrowing the puppy stage.

Perhaps the luckiest wolfdogs are the ones that make it to sanctuaries. On a cold morning in December, Simmons took me on a tour of LARC, where combat veterans help care for dozens of canines. (There is also a parrot sanctuary on-site.) The property sprawls for acres and acres abutting National Forest land. The wolves and wolfdogs residing there are matched with a carefully chosen and tested companion, and rotate through a series of vast enclosures, with rocks, trees, and streams to explore as pairs. Each animal determines how much interaction it wants to have with the humans on the property, Simmons told me.

Some wanted scratches and pets and sauntered up to greet us. Others seemed mostly interested in the pack of rescue dogs following us. At one point, a dog batted at one of the fences, causing a wolfdog on the other side to rush it and snarl, setting off a quake of crashing metal and piercing barks. I jump-startled, leading Simmons to chuckle. “If that wolf really wanted to hurt that dog, you wouldn’t hear anything,” he said. The hunt is silent.

I asked Simmons what would happen if he opened up all the enclosures and let the wolves and wolfdogs loose, imagining that they might form a hunting pack. “He’d be the only one left alive,” he said, pointing to an animal named Yoli. His standing was tall, his eyes an otherworldly pale hazel. When I was listening to my recording of the visit after coming home, I noticed that I had mumbled, “He looks like Aslan,” the Jesus-lion from The Chronicles of Narnia.

When I held my palm up to the fence, Yoli came to sniff it, his body loose and mouth open, canine signs of openness and calm. “He likes women and hates men,” Simmons said, standing back to give us a bit of space. “No wonder, given what men do to animals like him.” At the back of the enclosure, Yoli’s companion, Virginia, hovered with a taut stillness, tracking me but never approaching. I wondered whether she was hunting, or observing, or wishing I would leave. For a minute, she and I stood there, two animals beholding one another, as I asked her my unanswerable questions.