Environment
5:30 am
Fri April 18, 2014

Has New Hampshire Become A 'Dumping Ground' For Wolf Dogs?

Tanner Brewer, manager of NEWARC, gives Emerald, a high-content wolf-dog hybrid, some scratches.
Credit Aubrey Nelson / NHPR

New Hampshire wildlife officials are wrestling with a proposal that would put them in charge of wolf-hybrids; those are wolves that have been bred with domesticated dogs. These sometimes dangerous animals are often abandoned because they can be unmanageable as pets.

And a population of abandoned wolf-dogs prompted New Hampshire officials to take another look at this animal that falls squarely in the grey area between wild and tame.

Most dogs have many generations of domestication in between them and their wild roots. Wolf-dogs have just a few.

“They have that wildness to them, that’s just hard to get out of them,” says Tanner Brewer, who manages the state’s biggest wolf-dog sanctuary in Chatham, up on the Maine-New Hampshire border, near Conway.

He’ll tell you that many wolf-dogs act just like dogs, whimpering and begging for attention, but they can be huge – some weighing more than 200 pounds – and that wildness sometimes is right on the surface.

“We have one wolf-dog over here named Rosie who has really taken a liking to me and Matthew,” he says during a tour of the paddocks, “but yet one of the other guys can’t even go in the cage. He had been in there three or four times and she got his boot one day… just bit his boot.”

Brewer, a big guy and an army vet, works for the New England Wolf Advocacy and Rescue Center, or NEWARC. He says the 69 animals here have all been spayed or neutered and vaccinated, which the law requires, and are all kept in large pens with 8 foot chain-link fences.

It was a quiet, sunny day when I visited the NEWARC, but in reality there are storm clouds surrounding this refuge.

Who’s Got the Resources?

Last fall, a different wolf sanctuary in Alexandria collapsed, prompting a lot of headlines and scrutiny from lawmakers over how these animals are regulated.

Basically, right now, they are treated like domestic dogs: they have to be licensed with local authorities. The Department of Agriculture has rules that require wolf-hybrid owners to neuter, vaccinate, and keep them in pens with tall fences.

But Ag says it has never enforced these rules, because it doesn’t have the resources to do so, and it should be up to Fish and Game. However, at a recent hearing over a proposed bill to switch the authority to that department, Fish and Game said it too has money problems.

The wolf-dogs in Chatham have some creative names. Two animals that share a pen are Optimus and Prime. Joan Rivers is so named because "she's always talking crap" says Brewer.
Credit Sam Evans-Brown / NHPR

“We don’t have the manpower or the money to be going around confirming that somebody’s wolf hybrid is neutered or to look to see what kind of pens people have for these animals,” Fish and Game Director Glenn Normandeau told lawmakers, “I mean that’s not what our department does.”

Wait, Fish and Game is saying, these are domestic animals… that’s not our deal.

Agriculture says, no, no really they’re wild animals… they should be managed by Fish and Game.

And meanwhile the animals continue to trickle into the state.

A “Dumping Ground”?

You can still import wolf-hybrids from out of state, and while it’s illegal to sell them in New Hampshire a quick google search will show that doesn’t mean it isn’t happening.

Refuges like NEWARC and the one in Alexandria exist because when someone’s adorable hybrid puppy grows into a 200-pound, sofa-shredding wolf-dog, it needs a place to go. Many of the animals in these sanctuaries have come from out of state, which has lead proponents of reform to say that New Hampshire has become a “dumping ground” for Wolf-dogs from other states.

That worries officials because these sanctuaries often operate hand-to-mouth on the fringes of towns. In Alexandria – which hosted the refuge that fell apart so publicly last fall – the sanctuary could only be reached by ATV.

The wolf dogs have a wide variety of reactions to humans. Some approach the fences immediately, hoping to be patted, others vanish into the trees.
Credit Aubrey Nelson / NHPR

“The owners of that property wound up getting evicted from the land,” testified Donald Sullivan, chief of police of Alexandria, “which left me in a very tough spot of having a massive amount of these wolf-hybrids on the side of the mountain that I knew the owner wasn’t going to be able properly remove.”

It took 16 days to deal with those 40 abandoned dogs. Some had to be euthanized, a few went to the humane society, and the rest went to Chatham.

Cobbling it Together

Brewer is part of a crew of three from California who recently took over NEWARC. They cobble things together to make it work financially with grants, volunteers and donations. It’s a pretty rustic site, way up on the side of a ridge.

“So when we came here it was just a melee of tools and stuff that had been left behind,” says Brewer, “People living in trailers everywhere, and we want to get rid of all that and be able to make some suitable housing.”

The Chatham sanctuary used to be called the Loki Clan Wolf Refuge. Its founder, Fred Keating, had run-ins with the USDA, who cracked down on him for charging for tours of the site, which technically made it an illegal zoo. Keating fed the animals road kill and whatever other meat he could rustle up. The refuge’s board of directors eventually kicked him out saying the animals weren’t getting proper veterinary care.

When Brewer and the others arrived last fall they found a pile of animal carcasses on the property, years-old and including some of the wolf-dogs.

“This was a bone-yard down here that we cleared out and made pens, but every animal had two bullet-holes in the head, so that leads you to believe that the animals were still alive when they were brought here,” says Brewer, who doesn’t like to speculate as to what that the situation was like before they came.

Now, they’re building new enclosures, getting animals on site vaccinated and neutered, and trying to attract new resources, which they hope to do by employing veterans. According to Matt Simmons, the co-founder of the California refuge that took over in Chatham, it’s a model that has worked out West.

Simmons is writing grants, trying to start a program called Wolves and Warriors. It would work through the VA to hire traumatized veterans to care for rescued wolf-dogs.

“They’ll be able to live at the facility free of charge, they will also get paid while they are there, we will bus them back and forth for medical appointments and,” explained Simmons in a phone interview, “We will give them a chance to heal clean and sober and outside the brick and mortar of the VA hospital.”

No Easy Solution In Sight

Meanwhile, a fix for the oversight of wolf-dogs in New Hampshire appears to be hung up in the politics of how to enforce the law.  Though Simmons thinks simply levying fines might not be enough.

“Some of these animals fetch a price of $10,000 per puppy,” he says, “So when you have eight pups in a litter, why would you care? That’s just the cost of doing business.”

Work continues at NEWARC to build new, more secure paddocks, to house the many animals that have been to the sanctuary
Credit Sam Evans-Brown / NHPR

And while wolf-dogs can be difficult pets to own, some people continue to want to take on that challenge.

“The family of a friend of our son’s when he was about five had a wolf-hybrid named Rosie,” said Ellen Phinizy from Acworth –  whose husband worked on wolf-dog legislation passed over a decade ago – during the last hearing on the bill. “She was the sweetest thing in the world, she wagged her tail. She was just like a dog.”

The latest attempt to tweak New Hampshire’s rules is already through the Senate, and will be up for a vote in the House in the coming weeks.

Whatever lawmakers decide, there are 69 wolf-dogs on the Maine-New Hampshire border, where they will live out their lives.

“It’s our responsibility, we made them this way. We made them this way so they have a right to live just like anything else,” opined Tanner, listening to the wolfdogs howl behind him, “And as long as there’s places that are available, than it makes no sense to even think about putting them down.”

So for now, NEWARC will be there for wolf-dog owners who find they’ve bitten off more than they can chew.