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Wednesday, February 19, 2003

Wolf-dog legalities debated
Bill would ban owning wolves, but not hybrids


TENINO -- The way Teka jumps up and down playfully, tail wagging, the massive gray wolf could easily be mistaken for a large Husky dog.

The wolf's handler, Jack Laufer, speaks in a high tone and wiggles a piece of milk bone through the fence at the Wolf Haven animal sanctuary. Teka shows no interest in the milk bone, so Laufer pulls out a small white capsule, "Breath mint?"

Carefully, Laufer sticks his fingers through the fence, but the wolf doesn't bite. Instead Teka acts like any dog would, excitedly licking Laufer's fingers, trying to slip the sugarless mint onto her tongue.

"This is just one of those things I figured out through time," Laufer said, a big grin on his face as he wipes the wolf slobber onto his pants. "They just love breath mints."

But make no mistake, these animals aren't safe, and exactly how to regulate wolves and wolf-dog hybrids is the subject of debate in cities in Washington and among lawmakers in Olympia.

Laufer explains that although Teka is very doglike and he has known her since she was a pup, he wouldn't dare go in her protected enclosure -- a large circular encampment that prevents her from backing Wolfie, her wolf-dog hybrid mate, into a corner. A "tip-in" can be found on most of the enclosures to keep the wolves -- who have been known to jump vertically as high as nine feet -- from leaping over.

"Because the thing is if I go in there and . . . she gets mad at Wolfie and slams him on the ground and he gets up and he's fine," he said. "If she did that with me, she might kill me, which would be my own fault. But then that animal has to die because of this."

Teka is living at Wolf Haven, which has taken in more than 20 wolves from zoos or wildlife sanctuaries and another 20 from private handlers who were either illegally possessing the endangered animal or who could no longer afford to maintain a quality of life for them.

The city of Spokane had insisted that Wolf Haven accept Wolfie when the canine was but a pup. Rangers had stumbled onto the creature in the wilderness and had no idea what to do with it. Biologists and wildlife experts documented the pup as a wolf.

Except he wasn't a wolf.

He was an anomaly that is growing in popularity -- a wolf-dog hybrid. King County -- as well as cities such as Tacoma and Puyallup -- have already banned the wolf-dog hybrid.

And the Legislature was in the process of banning the creature, too, until an amendment from Rep. Tom Campbell, R-Graham, was introduced recently. The bill would ban private ownership of certain exotic animals, such as lions and foxes.

Wolves are on the list of banned pets, but wolf-dog hybrids are not. People who currently own exotic pets would be allowed to register them.

"Despite the hype and excitement, you can't tell the difference between a dog and a wolf hybrid," Campbell said.

That hype includes the fact that a wolf-dog hybrid bit the arm off an 18-month-old Whatcom County boy. The arm was so badly damaged that doctors were not able to reattach it. Similar attacks have happened from Spokane to Seattle.

Laufer said he was asked to explain to a woman in Michigan why a hybrid had attacked and chewed the thigh of her 8-year-old grandchild. The injuries were so severe that the child died on the spot.

More recently, a Bellingham family was suddenly attacked by their hybrid, and their youngest son had his arm ripped off, yet, Laufer said, the father refused to blame the hybrid.

"What do you tell them?" Laufer said. "People like that you can't talk to, you need to deal with them with legislation."

Sales of wolf-dog hybrids are also unregulated. Laufer said there's no assurance when someone buys a hybrid that it's actually a wolf instead of a dog bred to look like one.

"If you could cross a grizzly bear with a dog, most people would understand that this is not a good thing," he said. "But most people don't understand that a wolf or a tiger could kill you just as fast as a grizzly bear."

Two classified ads in a recent Little Nickel attempted to sell wolf hybrids, including one by Donald Moore, who has been handling wolf hybrids for the past 10 years. Moore said he has never had a problem with a wolf hybrid. He also said he has no proof of the percentage of wolf in the hybrids he was selling, except to repeat what he has been told by previous owners.

"Wolf Haven has a bad rap from wolf-dog hybrid owners," Moore said. "They don't have the right to tell the owners what they can do."

Cynthia Blackwolf of Thurston County said she is working on a book to tell "the good stories" of the wolf owners she has known for the past 20 years.

She said she visits the homes of those who advertise selling wolf hybrids -- like Moore's -- and educate them about the proper care of the canines. She admits that if an owner were to raise a wolf-dog poorly, the animal could -- and usually does -- turn on its owner. Laufer agreed.

"People who honor wolf-dogs and their many needs in a balanced way should be allowed to keep these animals legally without harassment from public officials," Blackwolf said.

Laufer said Wolf Haven receives three to 10 calls a day from owners trying to get rid of their hybrids.

The sanctuary has always refused them -- except for Wolfie.

"The result is usually a guy who cries for 30 minutes on the phone because he will be forced to euthanize a creature he spent anywhere from $50 to $2,000 on," he said.

Laufer was hired by the non-profit Wolf Haven International 20 years ago and has been a part of the organization as its curator ever since, growing membership from 50 to 5,000 and upgrading the facility to make it a leader in breeding rare Mexican wolves and reintroducing them back into the wild.

Laufer helped get Wolf Haven recognized by the state Department of Fish and Wildlife, which often calls the sanctuary for help in dealing with wild canine predators.

And Wolf Haven is actively fighting against the gray wolf being taken off the endangered species list, something that is expected to occur by the end of this year.

And although Laufer has had some close scrapes, he hasn't been seriously injured working with wolves.

He adds, laughing, "Knock on wood, never been bitten and I've worked at it really hard."

P-I reporter Steven Friederich can be reached at 360-943-3993 or


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