Do you want to own a Wolf?

A wolf is NOT just another kind of dog. As a matter of fact a wolf merely bears some resemblance of certain dog breeds, but that is where it all ends already.

Before man began to walk upright and discovered the use of fire, wolves had already ruled the earth for some 200.000 years, at least in the northern hemisphere. What made them so successful, much more successful than any other large land animal like the sabre-toothed tiger or the mammoth, was that they had a social system in place and a language to communicate in. As a matter of fact some anthropologists presume that man discovered the benefits of talking to one another by their example. Wolves lived in packs with a social hierarchy, usually led by the most intelligent and not necessarily by the physically strongest. They had discovered the power of teamwork and did most things necessary for their survival together, like hunting and caring for their young. They often looked after their elders until they became too much of a burden for the pack – and cave man realised all these were the secrets of their success. The rest is modern history, but one should bear it in mind when considering making a wolf one’s companion.
It is out of our respect for the wolf that we here talk of “him” and not of “it”.

Let’s quickly run through a number of possible motives why people most often think they want a wolf:

Why do you want a wild animal?

Don’t you think that a wild animal is better off in the wild where it belongs? Do you really think you can provide the necessary security, space, biotope, and right kind of food for a wild animal? Do you have the necessary background knowledge and time to take proper care of such an animal? A wolf needs all of this and more. Being a highly social animal he needs his pack and pack leader, 24 h every day. You cannot just feed him normal dog food, he needs lots of space to roam, climbs walls and fences, and loves to dig. He cannot be trained like a dog, and if you do not know what makes a good pack leader how can you hope to be accepted as such?

Is it perhaps that you want to step up your home security?

Bad choice, your wolf will probably either be scared of any stranger, or, depending on his upbringing, welcome an intruder. He will not be aggressive towards you or your family, simply because you and your family will be his pack. A wolf pack is ruled by reason and justice, not through aggression.

You say, you’ll give him manwork training?

Forget about it! Wolves are not, repeat, not aggressive towards man by nature but rather scared of him, no matter what fairy tales and other ancient sources say. The reason why people say he is, is simply because man has always feared creatures that competed with him – and were successful. Blaming the “big bad wolves” for all evil provided merely an excuse to hunt and kill them relentlessly. Forcing him to become aggressive is therefore against its nature and will most likely break him mentally.

Maybe you want to use the wolf for crossbreeding with a domestic dog to get out something strong, big, unafraid of anything and anybody?

Again, a very bad motive. See the section “Do you want to have a wolfdog?” .

Are you currently keeping a rottweiler, German shepherd, a dog of the bull terrier family, a ridgeback, or a wolf hound?

Then a genuine wolf will have little chance of surviving in your hands. Many dogs were bred (also) to defend herds of sheep and cattle from wild wolves and will, earlier or later, try to kill the wolf.

In a confrontation with a large dog, a captive-raised wolf is rather likely to try and solve their dispute by “discussing” it, as he would with another wolf, but the dog will not understand. On the other end of the scale are those small breeds like the Maltese poodle. Like most larger dog breeds, wolves just seem to hate them and may decide at one stage they have had enough of their yapping and shut them up for good. If you want to keep your wolf in the company of a dog, the most promising choice may be a Groenendael (Belgian shepherd) of first class working dog stock; they are also quite fluent in the wolf’s language; a Border Collie may be worth a try. Both are neither too strong to pose a threat to a grown-up wolf nor too small to be considered food, and intelligent enough to realise both. But even in this case it would be of utmost importance that the wolf cub grows up in the presence of the dog.

However, if you ever gave up on a dog because of dominance and/or behavioural problems, you are lacking something and that makes you entirely unsuited for keeping a wolf, sorry.

Do you still want a wolf?

Yes? Really? There was nothing in the above paragraphs that changed your mind? Then there are two fundamentally different ways to go about it, both with their pros and cons.

First, and most important, however – there are virtually no good homes for a second-hand wolf, i.e. one that was given up by or rescued from a previous owner. And an adult wolf rescued from the wild (e.g., injured, a “problem wolf”) is the worst possible choice for you. In general, all the different scenarios listed below require that the wolf or wolves in question are still cubs (preferably not older than 5 weeks, and have until then been brought up in a mixed “pack” of wolves and humans. Older cubs or youngsters will have problems to bond with their new owner; younger or even hand-reared animals will not have learned proper pack rules and cannot, at a later stage, be socialised with other wolves.

Scenario 1

You are envisaging your own little wildlife refuge, your own little wolf park. If you have a space of several acres of well-structured land available, the manpower to look after and care for the animals, and the financial resources to run it long-term, that’s fine. Almost all wolf parks in existence today once upon a time started like that. If you, in addition, have experience from working at and managing such a park, that’s even better. If not, you will have to hire someone who has. The costs for setting up and then running such a place properly are enormous and, more often than not, subject to approval by the relevant authorities. “Properly” here means escape-proof, in accordance with the wolves’ natural requirements, and safe for them and for you. In other words, a cage will not do!

The pros of such a project are that the animals will be more or less allowed to lead lives in a way similar to their free-ranging cousins, but minus the usual threats. Certain behavioral studies may be facilitated. If you are situated in a region where wolves live or used to live naturally, then yours may be, or become, a contribution to their protection or/and reintroduction to the area.

The cons are mainly the limited amount of interaction possible between you and the animals (more than one is an absolute must). It is more like keeping fish in a tank. The wolves will probably retain, or regain, a certain degree of shyness, certainly aloofness, and possibly distrust. They will basically do their own thing. In the process you will be reduced to a provider of food who is tolerated as a useful part of their environment.

Scenario 2

You are dreaming of living with a wolf?

Many people have had this dream, and very few have succeeded in turning it into reality. Circumstances are notorious for their changing – what, for example, if a new human partner enters your life, what if you have to relocate, or what if your new job suddenly requires you to be away from home for long periods of time?

Living with a wolf means to be part of his pack, his family, always. It is a lifelong commitment with no chance of a fair divorce. It requires you to respect some rules of living together that may be totally alien to you at first, but actually make perfect sense if you look at them from a wolf’s point of view. If your desire is strong enough, you will be ready to make the necessary allowances, but if you consider them sacrifices, you had better go for a dog.

Being the highly intelligent animal that he is, a wolf needs new mental stimuli on an ongoing basis. You will find that he learns very easily and very quickly. He has an excellent memory with regard to places, persons and actions. Very basic obedience training, therefore, becomes a “piece of cake”, if you bear in mind that the wolf will be bored of repeating exercises very quickly. It may be extremely useful at times, however, if your wolf is not scared of walking on a leash and riding in a car – just imagine you have to get him to a vet in the case of an emergency! The wolf very soon acquires certain basic ideas of how a pack (=family) functions, what is adequate and what is not. He will tell you so and expect that you understand! Try and learn wolf language (body language plus sounds) as the wolf will try to learn your language (sounds plus body language) where it makes sense to him. Become aware of and be consistent with your body language so as to not contradict your spoken words. This would be utterly confusing to the animal. Learn from the wisdom of the wolf’s idea of living together and you may find there is a lot that modern man’s society could benefit from. Read as much as you possibly can on other peoples’ experiences with a wolf in the house, and do not repeat their mistakes.

The wolf demands some respect – wouldn’t you too if you ruled earth for 200.000 years without destroying it? He will, in turn, pay you respect as you are (supposed to be) the pack leader and as such you deserve respect, wolf-style. If you fail in this department, the wolf will tell you, but if you continue not to understand, he might decide one day to take your place (as a dog would, too).

The wolf is a carnivore. He needs meat, not junk food. He will also complement his diet with invertebrates (insects, snails, etc.), vertebrates (rodents, bats, lizards, fowl, birds), and selected roots, herbs, berries and grasses which he hunts, digs up or grazes off itself. Dog pellets of the highest quality and without preservatives (!) are not too bad, but real meat is better (can you find a reliable source?); a combination of both provides variety, and so do some veggies with the food. At one stage your young wolf will put on as much as 2 kilograms of weight per week – to achieve this he will eat about one kilogram of meat per day. If you say, the best is just good enough for my wolf and I can afford whatever he demands, then maybe you are indeed suitable to have one, at least as far as your finances and the food quality for the wolf are concerned.

Wolves are in principle nocturnal (active at night). They prefer to feed in the evening and do their business at night. If you want your wolf to stay in the house over night, you should educate him to feed during the day so that most of the business has been done by the evening. Even if a foundation to this effect has been laid by the source where he comes from, it will still take some patience from your side; maybe more than a year.

You need to have a veterinarian or two who can take care of your wolf without being scared. In South Africa the greatest threat to a wolf is billiary (“tickbite fever”) that may kill an otherwise healthy adult wolf in less than six hours from your first noticing that all is not well. The only really reliable method to keep ticks away is using a fairly costly liquid product (distributed by veterinarians only) that is applied on the skin between the shoulder blades. This must be done religiously every four weeks and also during the dry season. Powders, dips, collars etc. do not work, or not reliably so, with the water and dirt resistant wolf coat.

That may sound easy enough, but it also has a great disadvantage for the wolf’s health. Such tick and flea prevention remedies are highly toxic. They get stored in the fat layer below the skin, and if this fat layer becomes over-saturated with the toxins it will release them into the blood stream, which can cause very serious health problems, which, in the worst case scenario, can be fatal. By repeating such treatments every 4 weeks, year in and out, this situation can occur quite quickly, especially if your animal is of a normal weight with just a rather thin fat layer. This is not only a danger to wolves but also to dogs, but wolves react much more sensitive and quicker to toxins than domesticated dogs who have been genetically modified through selective breeding. So, you will have to hand-check your wolf every day for ticks to remove them, and you have to also investigate homeopathic methods, like aromatherapy oils or other natural remedies to keep ticks away, which can be rather tricky and time consuming.

Your wolf needs the physical contact with you (as he would with the wolves of his pack), and you will want to enjoy it, too. Ideally you are working from home or at least you are not away from home for hours every day. A pack leader who is never with the pack is not fit to claim leadership. And, what will happen to your wolf when you go away on holidays? The authors of these lines have committed themselves not to go on vacations for the rest of their wolves’ lives. They are comfortable with this prospect, but you may think differently and, therefore, you have to have a plan! A dog kennel is no solution whatsoever!

A wolf needs space. 1000 square metres of accessible garden will do as long as it is richly structured to satisfy the natural curiosity of your wolf and its need for exercise. As was said before, he needs plenty of mental stimulation. This area must be proofed against under-digging and over-climbing, and you had better believe it, wolves are Houdinis clad in fur. They quite easily find out how to scale a wiremesh fence or a tree next to it, how to open doors, or how deep a tunnel under the foundation of a wall must be to get to the enticing other side. Digging is also behaviour that serves to unearth edible roots and grubs, earthworms and termites (which the wolf locates by hearing). Don’t punish your wolf for this; tell and show him you don’t like it, and perhaps he will do you the favour and leave your rosebushes alone, for a while. Generally speaking, don’t be shy to talk to your wolf, he will understand much more than you may be willing to give him credit for at this stage.

Here, you are entering a relationship between partners much rather than keeping an animal. If you are not doing it for the right reasons, you will awake from your dream to find you are living in a nightmare.

Cons of this approach include a certain degree of loss of natural behaviour and that there will be captivity-induced alterations to the same. It requires an extreme measure of commitment, and forces upon the “keeper” (for lack of a better word) a certain, unusual lifestyle. If learning and acquiring the “way of the wolf” represents an unwanted effort, this may also be a con, although in principle it surely is a pro. Substantial costs are involved. Your patience may be tested and its limits may need expansion. Damage to your property should not upset you too much.

Pros are such as an experience second to none. Fine details of certain behavioural patterns can be observed up close, and the authors of these lines have over the years discovered a number of points in wolf behaviour and language that do not appear to have been documented in the existing literature.

Another – although in principal only half-hearted – approach would be to live next to a wolf pack. It is basically the existence of two “packs”, a wolf and a human one, side by side, with an amount of mutual interaction. Such a situation exists when a pack of wolves live on the same property as you, but rarely come (or are permitted) into the house and you meet them when you choose to leave it. This may work fairly well in some cases, provided the wolves were brought up with intense physical human contact during their early stages of development. It also necessitates that there be more than one wolf, because the required social component would otherwise be missing.

Pros are that “house training” is virtually unnecessary, and that interaction can be fairly intense if you regularly spend a lot of time outside with the pack. Many aspects of wolf behaviour can be observed up close, but finer and more rarely displayed details may easily be missed.

Cons include the risk of a gradual decrease of the contact with the animals that may go unnoticed for a surprisingly long time. The early stages of an approaching illness may be missed and social conflicts may develop. Influencing certain undesirable habits may be difficult. The urge to leave the property may be much greater than in the scenario described before. Suitable shelters must be made available outside.

In principle, we object to wolves being kept in captivity. We object to private people and public enterprises keeping them unless they know exactly what they are doing. We support the conservation of wolves and their natural habitats in the wild wholeheartedly.

We are aware of the fact that quite a number of captive wolves are living here in South Africa. They have been here for quite some time and cannot be flown back to their native countries to reintroduce them to the wild. The only thing that can be done is giving them good homes and dedicated care, but this is by far easier said than done. SAFOW wants to make a contribution to this effect through information and education. Also, if a private person really cannot be convinced that it is not a good idea to keep a wolf as a companion, we hope that the above provides some guidelines that help to make such living together a little more acceptable for all parties involved. We will keep on discussing this subject in our monthly newsletters.

And if you have a wolf or wolfdog, and you realize that for whatever reason you cannot keep this animal than please do us one big favour – DO NOT abandon it in the next forest or on a street light, DO NOT ask your vet to have it euthanized, DO NOT just drop it off at the SPCA or sell it to some other inexperienced person! Check out one of the wolf and wolfdog Sanctuaries here in South Africa where you find experienced people who are able to handle wolfs and wolfdogs, and who can house and care for them properly.