“If you love dogs, you keep them close. But if you love wolves, you leave them wild,” says Ceiridwen Terrill a professor of science writing and environmental journalism, who spent 5 years exploring the world of captive wolves.
Terrill was inspired to start her quest after personally experiencing what it was like to be the owner of a wolf-dog hybrid. After four years of living together, she learned her pet could not stand confinement, and eventually had to put her down. Interviewing biologists and other experts is one of her tasks. In her studies, she finds that captive wolves don’t get a lot of attention, as the public tends to focus on the more than 60,000 wild wolves in North America. But the number of wolves and wolf-dog hybrids in captivity is much greater: about 1,500 pure wolves whose captivity is federally regulated, plus untold wolves kept by unlicensed individuals, and an estimated 300,000 wolf-dog hybrids.
People who keep or work with captive wolves are often trying to help the species. Motivated by a desire to ensure the long-term survival of wolves, they use science to educate the public about this elusive and intelligent creature — an icon of the wilderness, especially in the West. Many make personal sacrifices, running their facilities with a lot of love and very little money. But not all captive-wolf owners have conservation foremost in mind. Some are motivated by commerce, or by a yearning to possess “wildness.” Terrill writes, “It raises uncomfortable questions: At what point does kindness to animals morph into exploitation? What are the appropriate boundaries between humans and wolves? And why do we insist on testing the limits of those boundaries?”
Mission: Wolf, a remote 200-acre sanctuary nestled at the southern end of Colorado’s San Isabel National Forest, is where the Wolf & Wildlife Center hosts thousands of visitors each year in its mission to “educate the public … about the importance of wolves, coyote and (foxes) to our ecosystem.” It even takes wolves as “ambassadors” into classrooms and other public settings ranging from Colorado’s ski towns to inner-city Denver.
Another facility, the Wolf Education and Research Center, is a site in northern Idaho which keeps about seven wolves on 300 acres. Volunteers “Get Face to Face with Wolves” as the slogan of the WERC states. A resident biologist at WERC who works with the Sawtooth pack of wolves inside WERC fences describes his job as “far from ideal” yet, “the brutal extermination of wolves for unjustified reasons was a major rebellion platform for me and therefore I directed all my energy to fight for species that cannot defend themselves..”
Wild wolves first became protected in 1973 with the passage of the federal Endangered Species Act. Prior to this, people openly stole wolf pups from dens to supply the fur industry and zoos. Over the years, captive breeding has produced gray wolves and wolf-dog hybrids for the fur and pet trades, Hollywood, wildlife parks, and research and public education centers. There are even established genetic lines prized by private wolf and wolf-dog breeders. Even today, there remain no federal laws regulating possession of wolves. Anyone who acquires an “animal care” license from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service can breed, exhibit, sell and ship wolves, as long as they’re captive-bred, not wild-caught animals belonging to a population protected by federal or state endangered species laws. The license is easy to obtain; a set of vague regulations covers wolves, big cats, bears, rhinos and elephants, under the Animal Welfare Act, which Congress passed in 1966 and repeatedly amended to establish “minimum standards.”
It is clear that plenty of loopholes in the laws exist. Meanwhile, an unknown number of pure wolves are kept as pets; estimates range from the hundreds into the thousands. Inspections and enforcement of federal regulations — done by the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service — are limited. Terrill writes that one FWS agent told her, “There are fewer than 200 agents in the entire country. Captive wildlife protection is important, but it’s not our first priority. We go for the biggest bang for the buck and focus on the trade in wild-caught endangered species.”
The most ethical operations are nonprofits that provide a sanctuary for animals with nowhere else to go. These places try to educate visitors about wolf behavior and biology, hoping to win support for wild wolf conservation. Yet, there’s also a business side to captive wolves, one that includes not only breeding, but also buying and selling the animals and using them for photo shoots and other enterprises. In the midst of this activity, there becomes a surplus of captive wolves.
Some people defend keeping captive wolves by saying the animals have never known anything different and don’t long for the outside world and that they feel safe in their enclosures. Yet while many captive-born, human-socialized wolves might act friendly and even loving toward people, those animals are still wild at a genetic level; their natural instincts have not been selectively bred out of them over multiple generations, as has been done with domestic dogs. They won’t display tame behavior reliably or pass such behavior on to their offspring. And everything in their evolution makes wolves want to run, not stay behind fences. In fact, nature has designed them to travel 30 to 50 miles a day.
Terrill notes that, “it’s tempting to think that setting captive wolves free would be kinder. But aside from the political furor that would erupt over any attempt to introduce still more wolves into their native habitats, releasing captives amounts to a death sentence, as biologist Heft explained after one wolf escaped from WERC.” Some wolves would lack a natural wariness of people and be shot as a threat when they drifted too close. And wild wolves, highly territorial animals, would likely see the strange wolves as intruders and kill them. Also, wolf pups learn to hunt from their parents, so former captives would probably lack the skills to hunt large prey like elk and moose; instead, they would likely go after easier targets like livestock.
To learn more about the issue, feel free to visit http://www.hcn.org/issues/43.19/behind-the-scenes-in-the-lives-of-captive-wolves/article_view?b_start:int=4&-C= .