Recently, "Twilight"'s Kristen Stewart talked to David Letterman about her pet wolf-dog hybrid:
A few days later, I was walking my dog with my kids in a Southern California park and saw a HUGE dog being walked on a leash. The owner told me it was a wolf. I instantly felt protective of my small kids ... are these animals dangerous?
We called Dr. Randall Lockwood, the ASPCA's senior vice president for forensic sciences, to find out.
momlogic: First of all, are wolf-dog hybrids legal?
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Dr. Randall Lockwood: California and many other states have passed laws restricting the ownership of wolf-dog hybrids. Having pure wolves as pets is illegal almost everywhere, and first-generation wolf-dog hybrids are illegal in California. [Check Hybridlaw.com to find out the laws in your state.]
When enforcing the law, it often comes down to he said/she said, or how the animal is represented. The law is most effective for cracking down on people breeding dogs as wolf-dog hybrids.
[Editor's note: Stewart told Letterman that her family had gotten their wolves in Florida. Florida only regulates wolf-dog hybrids if the dog genetics are 25 percent or less.]
ml: With celebrities like "Twilight's" Kristen Stewart having wolf-dog hybrids, the breed seems to be gaining in popularity. But how safe are wolf-dog hybrids as pets?
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RL: I have bred several myself in my research, and worked with them -- my dissertation was on the wolf. People who seek out wolf hybrids often do it for selfish and egotistical reasons. They want something exotic. It's a mistaken belief that somehow they are honoring the spirit of the wild. Yet they have produced an animal that cannot usually live safely or happily with humans. It can't live as a wild animal, nor does it have the adaptation of a dog.
Wolf-dog hybrids are not necessarily more aggressive, but they are often very easily
frightened and aroused. They're escape artists -- virtually almost every one I have
ever known has escaped. They can be predatory.
They are not suited to the wild world or the world of companion animals. They are
difficult to train. Wolves have enormous control over their aggression -- wolves rarely fight
other wolves. But when you breed wolves with dogs (especially protective breeds like Rottweilers), it's potentially a very dangerous combination.
ml: A study by the Journal of the American Veterinary Medicine Association found that wolf-dog hybrids are the fifth most dangerous dog in America, causing 14 fatalities between 1979 and 1998. Should these dogs be allowed around children?
RL: I have been brought in as an outside expert in cases where wolf-dog hybrids have killed children. It's not that common. On average, there has been one hybrid-caused fatality a year over the last twenty years in the U.S. But if you are choosing a companion animal for the family, the wolf-dog hybrid should not even be a consideration. There are so many better options out there.
Wolves have strong social needs that people can't really meet. Wolves in the wild cover twenty to thirty miles a day finding food and communicating with their pack. If you put them behind a chain-link fence in a backyard, they get bored. That can be a dangerous situation.
ml: How many wolf-dog hybrids are there in the U.S.?
RL: We don't really know how many there are. The hybrid promoters tend to exaggerate the numbers to make them seem more popular and to seem like bad reports are more rare. But if the wolf-dog owners are talking to animal control, they'll often say their dog is a husky mix. So it's hard to get an accurate read.
Owning a wolf is almost like a cult for some people. It's this whole werewolf generation. But if you want to have contact with the wild, go to the real wild -- don't chain it up in your basement. How can you claim to appreciate the spirit of the wild and then put it behind a chain-link fence? Many owners say they're trying to help defuse the antipathy and bad press the wolves have had. I was doing wolf-appreciation programs thirty years ago. But all you need is the neighborhood wolf-dog hybrid to get out and kill a neighborhood cat or dog -- or worse -- and you'll undo all the good that our programs have done.
ml: Do you think that owning wolf-dog hybrids should be illegal?
RL: It certainly should be severely restricted and require a permit. Many states do specifically list wolf-dog hybrids on their lists of presumed dangerous animals; they require special housing conditions, insurance and permits -- as they should. Wolf-dog hybrids certainly have unique housing needs, and require special medical care. There are several reports of rabies-vaccine failures in wolf-dog hybrids. Even if the animal has been vaccinated, it is assumed to be unvaccinated. That means that if it bites someone, either the person who has been bitten has to start rabies treatment, or the wolf-dog has to be put down and tested for rabies.
ml: What happens to abandoned wolf-dog hybrids?
RL: If the owner is irresponsible or runs afoul of the law, the animal is very difficult to relocate. If a wolf-dog hybrid is picked up by animal control, it's usually euthanized. There are very few sanctuaries for wolf-dog hybrids.
I used to work with a wolf sanctuary in St. Louis -- the hybrids were kept in groups of five or six. They had an enormous amount of space and good veterinary care, but it's very labor-intensive and expensive to keep animals this way.
ml: What would you say to someone who wanted to get a wolf-dog hybrid?
RL: I can certainly understand their appeal: They are beautiful, intelligent creatures. But whether you're keeping tigers, wolves, chimps or whatever, this is simply not the way these exotic animals are intended to live.