ETHICS OF ANIMAL DOMESTICATION AND BREEDING WOLF-DOG HYBRIDS
By Dr. Michael W. Fox
The primary task of all who care for animals is the alleviation and prevention of physical and psychological harm. To abolish all suffering would entail destroying all life, for wherever there is life, there is one form of suffering or another, be it physical or psychological. Some forms of suffering, however, outside of the natural prey-predator realm, and natural catastrophes like drought and famine, can be prevented.
One way, for instance, is to stop producing more life, be it for commercial purposes or personal pleasure, because the Earth is beyond full carrying capacity.
As to the question of creating new life forms, specifically wolf-dog hybrids – which is a non-essential pleasure pastime for people so motivated – suffering is evident. It is avoidable, because it is human-created. Human-caused animal suffering is well documented over the past 10-14,000 years as a manifest reality of animal domestication. Wild stock must be captured, confined, and suffer the stresses of captivity to which they are neither adapted physically nor emotionally. Subsequent generations are selected for their ability to adapt to the conditions and demands of domesticity. Those that cannot adapt must be killed. But if, like a wolf, they mature relatively slowly, they must be kept for many months before one can tell if indeed they will adapt and settle down. Increasing instability may develop with increasing age, especially around five months and after two to three years of age.
During this developmental and adaptation phase, the animal suffers from being deprived of freedom and space to be active and explore, from fear of strangers and unfamiliar things, and from having basic instincts confused and conflicted, denied, and frustrated. This is a form of suffering that can be avoided by not trying to turn a wild wolf into a pet or companion animal.
The same is true for wolf-dog hybrids, especially with the first and second generation hybrids. More dog “diluted” wolf hybrids are generally more adaptable, but only a percentage of earlier generation hybrids are stable and adaptable. The rest do suffer, as my research on wolf x dog and coyote x dog hybrids has shown. Many finish up having to be euthanized. Is their suffering worth it so that a few people can enjoy owning a wolf-dog hybrid? Since these people’s survival does not depend upon it, I see no justification in the creation and ownership of such hybrids. Some may claim that this is their “right,” but is the right of ownership greater than the right of animals – the unstable predecessors and littermates of your stable and adaptable hybrid –to non-suffering? I think not.
Those who keep and propagate wolf-dog hybrids may well reflect upon this. The scientific evidence for suffering they cannot deny, nor should they skirt the ethical issue claiming that it is their right to own and create such hybrids. Nor can they rationalize and avoid the issue of unnecessary suffering by claiming that they are “improving” various dog breeds. There are enough genes in “dogdom” to improve every breed without having to introduce wolf genes again. Neither can they abdicate ethical responsibility by focusing on their own particular hybrid animal and rationalizing that it’s okay since some are stable and make good pets. Who is responsible for the misfits that must be destroyed or kept in a cage or otherwise protected from terrifying strangers? Who but the owners and propagators of wolf-dog hybrids. They may, and surely must, love their animals, but I contend that their love is blind and immature, lacking responsible compassion and awareness of the ethical ramifications of their self-indulgence.
While some breeders of hybrids may carefully place their creations with good owners, can we always guarantee that such sensitive and unstable or potentially unstable, psychically delicate creatures do not fall into brutal hands, the kind of person who wants a savage wolf in his dog? You may avoid this yourself, but other mercenaries will commercialize on our creations and mass-market wolf-dogs and sell them to anyone. Suffering may then be compounded when potentially stable hybrids are sold to unstable people who are drawn to the negative wolf mythos and who have neither the sensitivity nor knowledge to handle such an animal.
It is for this reason that I am against the indiscriminate sale of even fully domesticated cats and dogs. There are problems enough here to keep humane societies occupied for the next hundred years. To add wolf-dog hybrids to the contemporary pet crisis not going to improve matters. It will only add to the already extensive and unnecessary suffering that exists today.
No, I am not challenging your right to own a wolf-dog hybrid. When you have one, it’s too late to change things, and like me, I’m sure you love him or her and couldn’t live without him. But I do challenge, on ethical grounds, your right to breed more hybrids versus the right of animals to non-suffering. Can you guarantee that all the offspring will not experience unnecessary suffering? And please do not rationalize that they have a right to life when they have not yet been born! May no more be born for selfish human gratification.
We can learn to discover through other ways how to relate and enjoin co-creatively with the things of Nature. Humane stewardship is our greatest challenge and our calling if we are to avert global catastrophes and the extinction of species, including our own. Alleviation of animal suffering is one step in this direction and clearly the propagation of wolf-dog hybrids is one of many unnecessary self-indulgent activities, which a more mature and enlightened humanity would not engage in.
Surely we can enjoy and enjoin with other life forms on Earth in harmony without having to create them for ourselves. To fight to conserve the wolf and its wilderness habitat, for example, is better than enslaving its genes to create some hybrid pet. The latter has no right to be born, for that which does not exist cannot have rights.
But we have the responsibility to assure that hybrids will not be born since there can be no guarantee that they will not suffer after they are born: and their right to a life of non-suffering is surely greater than someone’s claim to breed and own such an animal. So let sleeping dogs lie and wolves have sanctuary in the wild. We can respect and love both without adding to the problems of the biosphere and the burden of suffering and of human responsibility by interbreeding the wolf and dog.
Perhaps, deep in our psyches, we are both wolf and dog ourselves, still wild and yet civilized. Or do we long for a sense of the wild and of the wilderness in our urban lives? Do we then vicariously satisfy this need by shooting a wild “trophy” animal, or keeping one captive, or incorporating a part of the animal’s wild essence into a domestic dog? Or is possession simply for social status and self-aggrandizement by having something unusual?
Let us examine, therefore, not only the ethics of owning and breeding wolf-dog hybrids, but the underlying motives also. Some may feel close to God, as creators of such unique animals. But a closer look into the mirror will reveal that many of these attractive hybrids are unstable misfits. If we are to be the trustees of all that is wild and the humane stewards of our fellow creatures, we must see that everything already has its place and understand that we create further chaos and suffering when we change the natural order for selfish ends.
Wolf Hybrid Study: Summary Statement
Between 1967 and 1974, while I taught at Washington University, St. Louis, I studied the behavior and development of many species of wild canids, including certain hybrids (coyote x beagle and wolf x malamute). Many of the canids I studied had the same rearing history, having been hand-raised, and all had much human contact and handling to ensure optimal socialization, i.e., as part of the research design, social and environmental influences were kept as constant as possible so that the genetic differences in behavior and development that we were interested in would not be masked or confounded by such variables.
The wolf stock was principally from (Canadian) McKenzie River Wolf Subspecies bred in captivity, and the domestic dog breed used in these studies was Alaskan malamute. Two hybrid litters were provided by Dr. John Schmidt (Snowmass, Colorado), which were first generation (F1) hybrids. From one of these we bred F1X malamutes (backcross). We also studied three hand-raised wolf litters, one litter of purebred malamutes and bred one litter of F1 wolf x malamutes. These data were not published because we did not breed an F2hybrid generation which would have provided insights into Mendelian patterns of segregation. (This was accomplished in coyote and dog hybridization research, hence, the latter was published in a scientific journal.) However, our wolf x dog hybrid studies did reveal a consistent pattern in temperament development. The “wild” traits of the wolf were evident in those hybrids having the most wolf genes and were least evident in the more “diluted” hybrids, i.e., F1 hybrid x malamute.
However, within- litter rather than between litter comparisons showed that even in the more wolf-dilute hybrids, later instabilities in temperament emerged in some individuals. While there is little doubt that with selective breeding, stable hybrids can be produced, my concern is over the fact that hybrid animals with behavior problems can result from breeding wolf and dog and will occur unpredictably in subsequent hybrid offspring.
While to eliminate such problems is a realistic and accepted goal of wolf x dog hybrid breeders, and while admittedly there are magnificent and temperamentally stable hybrids alive today, my concern over the unstable hybrids remains. I have encountered some that are more unstable than any timid hand-raised wolf even. Hybridization may therefore intensify emotional/behavioral problems in some wolf x dog combinations. This possibility gains indirect support from our coyote x dog studies where, in the F2 (second generation) hybrid generation, some individuals were indeed in this tragic category.
To get a wolf, crossbreed the wolf with a dog, and then expect the offspring to make “pets” and adapt to the domestic environment is something that should be outlawed. I wish every municipal authority would crack down on all breeders and traders, but not confiscate wild and hybrid pets, unless their living environments cause otherwise avoidable stress and suffering. Surely every living soul has a right to live and be well in conditions that are best for spirit, mind and body. This does not mean captivity for wild souls unless conditions are comparable to the natural state.
We do not have the knowledge yet to create homologous habitats identical to the real. The best we can ever hope for are successively higher fidelity analogs. But such efforts should not weaken our commitment to the conservation, protection and restoration of wild animals’ natural habitat. An apartment, house, cage, or backyard is such a low fidelity environment for a wild animal that many states do not permit them to be kept and propagated under such conditions, except on fox, mink, and other fur farms.
Dr Fox is author of The Soul of the Wolf, (Dogwise Publications),and his website is www.drfoxvet.com For additional reading about wolf-dog hybrids, see Ceiridwen Terrill’s book Part Wild, (Scribner NY 2011)