How many are there? How safe are we?
By Matt Hongoltz-Hetling
In May 2011, wolf hybrids in the state of Maine became the subject of a planned extinction, when a new law required all the animals to be registered, micro-chipped and neutered to prevent reproduction.
But today, only a handful are listed on a state registry and it’s unclear how many undocumented hybrids are out there.
Former senator David Trahan, of Waldoboro, who sponsored the law, said that legislators heard a lot about the dangers of wolf hybrids, a term used to describe any animal that has a wolf, coyote or other wild dog in its ancestral background.
“Experts testified it was imperative to pass a law,” Trahan said. “The graphic nature of their attacks on children were particularly moving to the committee.”
Trahan, who is now executive director of the Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine, said the problem is that hybrids are more likely to escape confinement than dogs, and more likely to wreak havoc when they do so.
“They’re prone to get out because that’s what their instincts tell them to do,” he said.
He pointed to Waldoboro, where a wolf hybrid escaped in July by pushing through a screened window.
The animal harmed no people, but killed chickens before being captured by police three days later.
Mike Witte spoke at the May meeting of the advisory council of the Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife about his concerns about hybrids. He said he’s seen them confronting horses and killing chickens.
Trahan said it’s only a matter of time before a wolfa hybrid causes a tragedy.
Law lacks teeth
Today only three wolf hybrid owners in Maine appear on the state list.
The law, L.D. 11, was enacted as an emergency measure in May 2011, and requires owners to have hybrids neutered or spayed and permanently identified with a microchip or tattoo, or face a $2,500 fine.
Under the law, the state Department of Agriculture and the Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife are charged with compiling lists of wolf hybrids. Those registered before June 1, 2011, are considered pets and put on a list at the Animal Welfare Program in the agricultural department. After the cutoff date, new hybrids are registered as wild animals, or exotic pets, through the wildlife department.
But the law doesn’t seem to be having an impact.
Today, the list of wolf hybrid owners includes five animals owned by three people.
“Based on the reporting from the towns there are three licensed in Monmouth, one in Woodville and one in Detroit,” wrote Animal Welfare Program Director Liam Hughes in response to an information request. “This is all that have been reported to us.”
The list of wolf hybrid owners who have come forward since the cutoff date contains no entries, said Jim Connolly, a regional biologist with the wildlife department.
It uncertain how many wolf hybrids live in Maine.
“There’s not that many around,” said Russell Danner, a veterinarian practicing in Waterville. “I’ve seen two or three in 20 years.”
Animal Control Officer Dave Huff, animal control officer for Fairfield, Benton, Clinton and Albion, agrees.
“We have one in Clinton and that’s it,” he said.
Others have a different sense of Maine’s wolf hybrid population.
Jim Doughty, owner of Wolfs Ledge Sanctuary and Education Center in South Bristol, which provides a home for a handful of wolf hybrids and has a mission of educating the public about them. He estimates there are between 20,000 and 30,000 in Maine.
“I know of over 100 right now just in this town,” Doughty said.
Nationwide population estimates from advocacy groups and the U.S. Department of Agriculture have ranged between 300,000 and 500,000. If Maine had a proportional share of that number, it would amount to somewhere between 12,600 and 21,000 animals.
Speaking from the state’s perspective, Connolly said that there is no evidence of a large hybrid population.
“We don’t have any reason to believe that there are thousands of unlicensed wolf hybrids in the state,” he said.
The issue becomes fuzzier when the perceptions of pet owners are taken into account. Connolly suggested that some so-called hybrids might be huskies in wolf’s clothing.
“I wouldn’t be surprised if some people are confused about their animals,” Connolly said.
On the other hand, the state doesn’t make any allowances for animals that are mistakenly thought to be hybrids by their owners.
Under the state law, any “mammal that is represented by its owner to be a wolf hybrid” is subject to wolf hybrid laws.
Danner said he’s seen perceptions change in a heartbeat in his veterinary offices when people understand that owning a hybrid comes with added responsibilities.
“People come in bragging that they have a wolf hybrid and then they decide that no, it’s just a German shepherd,” he said.
State officials say that there aren’t any obvious obstacles to the registration of hybrids.
After the law was passed, the Department of Agriculture sent a letter to town clerks that asked them to report wolf hybrids at the same time they report on licensed dogs, said Connolly. A press release from September also informed the public of the new law.
But the majority of wolf hybrid owners don’t seem to be getting the message.
Some of them might be actively deciding not to register, said Doughty, because they fear consequences.
“If it’s a husky mix or a shepherd mix, if you go to the vet you just say it’s a mix,” Doughty said. “Most of the vets don’t want to put them down. So they’re going to go along with it.”
The consequence of a hybrid biting someone is serious.
“If it bites somebody, and you say it’s a wolf hybrid, it will be put down immediately, its head will be cut off, and it will be sent to Augusta to be tested for rabies,” Doughty said.
In other cases, owners have registered their wolf hybrids with their town, but don’t appear the state registry, suggesting that town clerks aren’t reporting the information.
Connolly said that future education efforts will reinforce the message to town clerks, and include others who are likely to come into contact with hybrids.
“This will be an informational effort that will be accomplished through additional informational mailings to the communities who license dogs, shelters and veterinarians; through training updates for Animal Control Officers; and information posted on the state website,” he said.
Trahan says that when he sponsored the law, he pictured a more active enforcement role.
“I don’t think that they should sit back and wait for somebody else to take action. They should come forward and ask for funding,” he said.
Trahan also said that he hoped the current Legislature would allocate resources to help fund enforcement.
Gene Mitchell, of Detroit, is one of the few wolf hybrid owners on the state registry. He doesn’t see what all the fuss is about. When he registered his animal, a wolf-malamute mix named Wolf, it was just as routine as registering any other dog, he said.
He bought Wolf in 2010 from Maple Run Kennels, an Athens-based kennel that once advertised the sale of wolf hybrid pups.
“When we got her, we figured we would need to do that with the town anyway,” Mitchell said. “When we had her first shots done, we took her to the vet, and we had to notify the state that we had ownership.”
His wife, Julie, speculated that noncompliant owners are fearful of the end result of registration.
“Maybe they’re afraid that they’re going to lose their wolves,” she said. “I don’t think it’s that bad. It didn’t cost anything extra. If you already have the wolf, it’s fine.”
Mitchell said wolves get a bad rap among humans.
“As children, we’re told stories like Little Red Riding Hood and the Three Little Pigs, and all of those feature wolves that are the villain,” he said. “I think if more people would take the time to check the wolves out, the hybrids, a lot of the people would come to the understanding that they’re not as bad as people would think.”