The White Wolf Sanctuary is just that; a refuge for arctic wolves. Arctic wolves (Canis lupus arctos) have been recognised as a subspecies of Canis lupus (commonly known as grey wolves). Arctic wolves have larger paws and teeth than other modern wolves. They naturally inhabit areas such as Greenland and regions of the Canadian Arctic Archipelago, but are also found scattered around parts of the world in captive situations. It is believed that they are a surviving early population of the modern wolf that had become isolated in ice-free parts of northern Greenland and eventually spread back across the Arctic. It has also been suggested that introgression (the introduction of a different species’ genes into a gene pool by hybridization) was a significant issue with the arctic wolf population, but more recent research has determined that wolf hybrids actually breed three months earlier than true wild modern wolves (which only breed once per year), meaning offspring of hybrids are born during winter and thus have little chance of survival in the Arctic wild.
In saying this, though, introgression is a serious issue with true wolf genetics today. Domestic dogs (Canis lupus familiaris) are the species most closely related to the grey wolf; Canis lupus are the exclusive ancestors of dogs. With this in mind, wolves and dogs easily hybridize. Hybridization is a conservation threat, although it is relatively difficult to assess in a research sense. The impact of hybridization of wolves with domestic dogs has been proven in areas such as Israel and Italy where hybrids have appeared more aggressive and less timid which in turn prove to be an issue for wild prey and livestock. Not only do wolves hybridize with domestic dogs, but other closely related species such as the coyote. In fact, the most serious issue for wolf conservation in relation to hybridization is the infiltration of Red Wolf gene pools with that of coyotes.
One of the main messages the White Wolf Sanctuary wanted to portray was the importance of not keeping wild animals as pets. It is estimated that there are more than 100,000 captive wolves and 400,000 hybrids in America alone. Keeping wolves and hybrids in the USA as pets is a popular practice even though the ownership of ‘pure’ wolves is forbidden. There are only a few states with regulations in place pertaining to the ownership of wolf-dog hybrids, so without much official restriction the practice is fairly common. Genetic conservation aside, it has been identified that wolves and wolf-dog hybrids owned as pets or working animals pose more of a danger to humans because they are less trainable and manageable than true domestic dogs and have a diminished fear of humans. Wolf conservation is the main intention of WWS, but during tours it would also be important to point such direct hazards out to people interested in owning wolves or hybrids to encourage them to better relate to problems it could involve. I remember one gentleman telling us he once owned a hybrid and got “bored” with it so “released it back into the wild”. What needs to be understood is that captive-born animals are not from the wild, they live under our direction and decisions, and most usually unless trained and conditioned to do so they do not develop the hunting skills required to survive as their wild counterparts would. Also, the released hybrid had the potential of creating yet more hybrids and thus diluting the true wolf gene pool. I must admit, I do not see the point of owning a hybrid or the practice of keeping wild animals as pets. It was difficult for me to try and understand the man’s point of view; he didn’t see why there was a problem with releasing a hybrid into the wild to fend for itself. But most likely, as Lois pointed out, it would probably have either starved to death or been killed by local wild canid packs.
It was during this situation where I was introduced first-hand to a person who felt it was his simple right as a human being to breed wolves with his dogs and own the hybrid offspring. I could never imagine feeling such entitlement – it is absolutely something I would never consider. The topic of human perception of wolves was one I would get to explore in great detail during my White Wolf Sanctuary internship, and is something I will always have a cautious curiosity to follow.