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Sunday, June 2, 1991 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Big And Bad -- Why I Killed My Wolf-Dog

WHEN I was about 17 years old, I decided to get a wild pet. I wasn't too particular about what sort, at first, so long as it was wild. I spent my childhood deeply involved with animals, and wild ones especially fascinated me. I had grown up with pet snakes, I had known of pet raccoons, and a pet opossum poking its head out of a knapsack had once made quite an impression on me, but that was the extent of my experience.

Finally I settled on a wolf, I think because of my interest in dogs. No one I knew of had ever even encountered a pet wolf, so firsthand experience was pretty much out of the question. I found very little literature about wolves, but I read everything I could get my hands on, and none of it spoke against keeping them as pets.

I came away realizing little was known about wolves, and much of what was "known" was, in fact, only assumed. My dream began to have more purpose. It would be a lifetime commitment, to learn all I could and to share what I learned. It was a bigger responsibility than I ever dreamed.

So I knew what I wanted before I got Bonnie. I wanted her, first of all, to really know she was a wolf, so I arranged not to pick her up from the zoo until she had opened her eyes and lived with her family for a time. I intended to raise her on my parents' farm, to socialize her to the chickens, horses, dogs, and numerous cats.

It never occurred to me she might not be just another member of the family, as the dogs were. I expected she would ride in the back of my old Chevy pickup on outings to the lake with the dogs and me. And I wanted her to become an "ambassador" wolf, like a couple of other wolves of which I had heard, so she could teach children what the Big Bad Wolf was really like.

What I got was an infant creature that knew beyond a doubt she was a wolf, that I was not, and that I was directly responsible for removing her from her rightful family!

That first night home, she howled incessantly on the kitchen floor; but she also knew a 17-pound tom cat was easy prey for a wolf cub that was all of 20 days old (and weighed perhaps four pounds), so she bowled him over and attempted to disembowel him. The experience was one the cat and my family never forgot, and the first shadow of doubt began to creep in around the edges of my dream.

AT six weeks of age, Bonnie killed her first chicken. The act itself did not appall me, since most puppies must first kill a chicken before learning it is the wrong thing to do. But, as I approached her to take away the chicken and discipline her, she left her prey and came after me in the most convincing display of aggression I had ever seen. After five minutes I made up my mind, once and for all, that it wasn't just a display, that it was going to be my responsibility to keep the chickens away from Bonnie, and training her was not in the picture.

So there I was, with a maturing wolf that fit none of the roles I had laid out so nicely for her. I found myself in the position so many disillusioned exotic-pet owners reach - stuck with the prospect of keeping for life a wild animal that was costly, dangerous, destructive and, although friendly to me within limits, not at all a "pet."

It was unthinkable to destroy or get rid of Bonnie. We had grown very close. I had learned many lessons from her. I knew now that wolves, regardless of birthplace, are as wild as the storm blowing over the mountains, that they are formidable predators, and that they are not suitable as pets! I felt bad about having a wolf for a pet in the first place and wanted to do something to help keep other wolves out of the nightmare of pet situations.

SO what did I do? I launched into a wolf-hybrid breeding program that was to span a number of years and more lives than I care to place on this paper.

At least two wolf-wise friends advised against this venture, one out of hard-learned compassion, the other out of concern for the reputation of wolves and the safety of children.

But I believed I could do better than the dark scenarios they forecast. What follows is only a small portion of my experiences as a wolf-hybrid breeder.

My intention was to find a mate for Bonnie that could produce pups that were wolflike in appearance, so they would satisfy the urge to have an exotic pet, yet also doglike in temperament, and therefore suitable as pets.

Togiak was one of the sweetest, gentlest Alaskan malamutes I've ever met, as well as an AKC champion with an excellent background. I felt certain this distinguished dog would leave his desirable genetic stamp on a litter of first-generation wolf hybrids. Of the five resulting exquisite pups, one male was very wolflike and wild.

After his new owner took him he was never heard from again and could not be traced.

One female, which I kept and of whose sweet nature I never had a doubt, was also exceptionally wolflike. Sadly, she climbed over the overhang on the wolf pen and was killed on the highway. My heart aches for her still.

About the remaining three I expect you will form your own judgments.

Alphie failed in her first home as a pet, turning terribly shy by three months of age. Her second home, as a companion to an adult pure wolf, lasted only until she began nipping at her owner's legs when he cleaned the pen. Her third home lasted a full year. She lived with Arrow, a three-quarters-wolf male that had been rescued but was too shy to touch, as was she.

But, one day while the family was gardening, the baby toddled over to the shy animals unnoticed. Alphie grabbed him through the wire and shredded his arm. One hundred stitches on a soft, tiny arm. Alphie was killed. I could only fault her owners for not having a safety fence to keep the child away.

Storm was big, soft and beautiful, and his human family was wonderful. He enjoyed free run of a large yard, got lots of house time, and played gently with the children.

But the owners never built the maximum-security pen I made them promise to build, and, as luck would have it, Storm turned out to be a hybrid that did everything in the book.

He jumped over, then ripped through the fence to play with the neighbor's dog. He ignored "hot" wires. When his owner chained him as a last resort, he ate not one but two holes in the family's (rented) house large enough to admit him.

His second home was in a large, wolf-proof, L-shaped kennel with a pure wolf companion. Not shy of strangers, he readily accepted his new owners. The entire yard was enclosed in six-foot chain-link, but neighbors were over for a barbecue and their unattended child was climbing the kennel fence when Storm grabbed him and severely mangled his leg.

Storm was spared the bullet and given to a breeder. He lived for 11 years and sired hundreds of puppies. What are their stories?

Blue was the most doglike of the litter but, from the age of three weeks, his temperament was cold steel. He was cautious of new people but feared them not a bit. At three months of age, he began lifting his leg to urinate.

At 6 months he began testing any adult but me, looking into their faces while jabbing and pinching their legs. At nine months, I knew beyond doubt he was dangerous to children.

When he was a year old, people were often terrified of him - even though he was securely penned. His defiant stance and cold, pale yellow stare could make your skin crawl.

During his third year he began to threaten me when I was in the wolf pen. He was second ranking in a group of eight wolves and hybrids. My routine involved cleaning the large wooded pen, then sitting and visiting or watching the animals, sometimes joining in their games.

Long before, I had learned (the hard way) to stay out of dominance struggles, so I was no threat to Blue.

But he began circling me, staring in my eyes and waiting. I got to where I had to sit with my back against a fence and always carry the poop scoops, to brandish and keep him back. I had a cold. sick feeling in my gut. My husband was worried about me going in while he was at work.

Finally Blue fought, beat and nearly killed the alpha Diamond. With Blue as alpha, I could never enter the pen again, and I knew he would shortly finish off the ever-gentle Diamond.

I shot him as he stared down at me from the highest platform, his new throne. When I entered the pen to remove his, finally, "safe" body, the wolves were all gentle and mellow. It seemed they had expected this.

It wasn't Togiak's fault. It wasn't Bonnie's fault. It wasn't even their puppies' fault. It was mine, for selling wolf-hybrid time bombs to people who refused to believe the warnings I steadfastly sewed into each sale.

THERE is no such thing as a "safe" animal to cross with a wolf. The wolf is first and foremost a formidable predator, and if not even thousands of years of domestication have made him thoroughly safe (as evidenced by the many unsafe dogs we all have known), how can anyone expect to undo in one generation, or several, what nature spent millions perfecting?

My career as a breeder came to a close. More often than not, I now voice a strong opinion about hybrids not being suitable pets and try to convince other breeders to see the tragedy their programs are causing.

I have kept my own animals all these years (Bonnie died just shy of 16 years) but not without price. After seeing all the trials and tragedy we imposed upon the wolves - and they upon us - friends and family members made it clear they felt we were foolish to drag around "those animals."

Finally, in 1982, I came to work at the Folsom City Zoo, a small zoo in Northern California which houses a number of non-releasable North American native animals and, notably, discarded wild-animal pets.

Here I have been witness to the tragic stories of countless unfortunate wild-animal pets. My experience with wolves and hybrids and, now, the zoo, has led me to realize the majority of exotic pets (and here I include hybrids) are dead before they reach age 3.

.Terry Jenkins, her husband, Dan, and daughters Lena and Mary Ruth live in California with a number of animals, including two mustangs and a dwindling pack of wolves and hybrids. This article is adapted from The Humane Society of the U.S. News.

Copyright (c) 1991 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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