Habituated, Hybrid and Domestic Wolves on the Lamb

Habituated, Hybrid and “Domestic” Wolves on the Lamb

Jess Edberg, Information Services Director — International Wolf Center, 12/13/2007

Four separate reports in four days surfaced this month regarding animals that look like wild wolves but don’t seem to act like them. Alaska, Washington, Idaho and Utah had recent problems with wolves that were habituated to humans, socialized or hybridized by people. Where are these animals coming from and why now?

With the current political, legal and emotional controversy surrounding wolves in North America, any wolf news seems to provide material for media outlets. However, the majority of these “problem wolves” aren’t actually normally-behaving wild wolves at all; they are products of human behavior.

Human-habituated wolves, for example, are wolves that have lost some or all of their natural avoidance behavior toward humans typically due to a source of human-provided food. Think of Yogi Bear going after the unattended picnic basket. Wolves are just as resourceful as that cartoon character, and so is other wildlife. For an animal like the wolf that requires great amounts of energy to hunt and kill live prey, a source of food that presents itself with little or no energy output is not something to ignore. Unfortunately, once a wolf or wolf pack discovers a source of food that is relatively easy to acquire, it becomes a resource that is tapped often. The more food the wolves get, the more reinforced that behavior becomes and eventually, the wolves no longer see humans as something to avoid but, rather, something that may provide food.

Habituation to humans is a preventable problem that can be avoided by practicing responsible human habits such as proper disposal of trash, appropriate storage of food or just giving a wild animal ample space rather than encouraging it to come closer for a photo opportunity.

Two other kinds of “problem wolves” aren’t technically wild wolves either. Wolf-dog hybrids and wolves kept as pets may contain wolf genes; however, they have been raised and socialized by, or imprinted on by humans. A common mistake is calling these animals “domesticated” wolves. The process of domestication takes hundreds of generations of selective breeding and possibly thousands of years to obtain a truly domestic animal, such as the dog.

Nevertheless, pet wolves are often called domesticated. Is it a misunderstanding of the process of domestication or because the word domestic refers to all things dwelling in a home, including pets? Regardless, pet wolves are far from being domesticated. Natural, wild instincts do not go away once a wolf steps indoors and becomes a member of a human family.

These instincts are also present in wolf-dog hybrids, a result of interbreeding by wolves and dogs, usually in captivity. It is rare for a wild wolf to breed with a domestic dog; in fact, wolves typically see dogs as competition when encountered in the wild. The wolves will often chase, attack and in many cases kill dogs that are perceived by the wolves to be trespassing in their territory.

A hybrid is like a Jack-in-the-box. From the outside, it may have the characteristic look of a wolf or a dog that gives an owner an unrealistic sense of certainty over how the animal will behave as it develops. However, hybrid behaviors are truly unpredictable. Due to a mixture of both wild and domestic genes, their behavioral growth is a mystery just like when the jack will pop out of the box. A hybrid may mature between 12 to 36 months of age, which is the range for a wolf, or as early as a dog, at 8 months of age. This maturity age dictates when the animal develops its adult behaviors.

The behaviors associated with maturity are extremely unpredictable. In many cases, these animals change from a submissive, youthful pup to a challenging, sometimes aggressive adult animal that is too much for the owner to handle. Although there are hybrid and wolf rescue shelters around the country, these facilities cannot keep up with the supply of unwanted or unmanageable animals. In some cases, these animals are illegally released into the wild–even if they are not native to the area or there are no wild wolves present–to avoid euthanasia. This may sound like a humane alternative to putting the animals down but, in reality these animals have little chance of surviving in the wild.

Although the animals may have some or all of the genes of a wolf, they are entering the wild with no fear of humans. In most cases, these animals head directly for the nearest home or farm in search of food and often end up shot by local wildlife or animal control officials.

If they are not killed or captured, they have the potential to wreak havoc on communities by creating fear and loss of livestock or pets. In many cases, the animal is thought to be a wild wolf until it is caught or killed and examined. Unfortunately, the fear, mistrust and sometimes hatred for real wild wolves have already developed.

Why have there been so many more news stories about these animals in recent months? It is difficult to know. Possibly, people are encountering wolves more often and giving wolves an opportunity to become habituated. Maybe more hybrid or wolf owners are finding it impossible to handle their animals for one reason or another. Is this something that has occurred at the same rate in the past but now the media finds it to be a popular topic? There are too many questions to answer. The important message is that things are not always what they seem.

The International Wolf Center encourages individuals to be critical when reading, watching or listening to wolf-related news. Misconceptions abound, and responsible people seek out the truth in media information. The Center provides information services for this reason and challenges individuals to ask questions and take part in reporting accurate wolf information.


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