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Born Prisoners

It Seemed Like a Good Idea: Hybridize an Endangered Species to Protect It. But These Wolf Dogs Are Cruelly Trapped Between Two Worlds--and a Danger to People Around Them.

August 17, 1997|LOUIS SAHAGUN | Louis Sahagun is a Times staff writer based in Denver

"Right," nods Harrison in agreement. "But hybrids are another story. In hybrids, you've got a wolf fighting with a dog in the same skull. It's like the egomaniacs in the movies who create a misfit in the laboratory that the government has to put down. I think man has bred his vanity and aggressive personality into hybrids. The result is a very shy animal with a powerful bite and cunning. Not a good deal."

Perhaps. But even they would agree that the 4 1/2-year-old, 120-pound hybrid that spends each day snoozing in the shade of the entrance to a Mexican restaurant across the street from their Country Junction saloon in Fernley, Nev., is an imposing exception.

"He's part wolf, part husky and real mellow," says Dan Herrera, manager of Ricos Tacos. "His name is Rock because a lady at the pound I rescued him at two years ago said he was dumb as a rock.

"Not true," Herrera says, tugging at curls of black hair spilling out from under his brown fedora. "I raised him with my children and trained him every night. . . . I even used to bite his snout, like a wolf would. He became very loyal to me. At first, it's true that he expressed himself with anger--like the time I took him to a reggae concert and they wouldn't let him in. I tied him to a tree next to my van. He ripped the rubber bumper of that van to bits.

"But hey, he's not like that anymore. If I kicked the bucket, he'd lie on my grave and wait for me to come back."

*

There has never been a documented case of a wild wolf killing a human being in the United States. But canine fatal-attack statistics, compiled by the Humane Society, rank wolf hybrids in sixth place behind malamutes, huskies, shepherds, Rottweilers and pit bulls.

Pit bulls killed 67 people between 1979 and 1994, while hybrids killed 12 people--all of them children--during the same period. But as one state legislative analysis points out, since there are fewer hybrids, their percentage of fatal attacks is higher.

In March, 1989, 5-year-old Angie Nickerson was killed by a 110-pound wolf hybrid shortly after getting off a school bus less than 100 feet from her doorstep in National Mine, Mich. Authorities speculated that the wolf/malamute-mix broke its chain, attacked the child and partially consumed her. The animal was shot to death by police.

"All I want is for the breeding to stop, and I will fight for that until I take my last breath," says the little girl's mother, Patti Nickerson, 36, who is spearheading a bill in Michigan to curb ownership of hybrids. "I'm appalled that people are mixing wolves and dogs. And what for? Money and ego. It's despicable! The animal that killed my daughter was a freak. The dog side didn't fear people. The wolf side was a high-strung stalker. Put those things together and you had a schizophrenic monster."

In 1990, a month-old infant in Alaska died of extensive skull fractures after being bitten in the head by a pregnant hybrid. The infant's mother reportedly held the baby near the wolf. It was the third attack in Alaska in less than four weeks that year. A week earlier, a 4-year-old's arm was broken after he ventured too close to the chained hybrid that attacked him. A few weeks before that, a 4-year-old girl was mauled by a chained hybrid that tore her scalp.

Last December, a Black Forest, Colo., woman became the first adult to have been killed by hybrids. A male weighing about 175 pounds and a female that weighed at least 125 pounds had leaped their pen's six-foot-high fence and attacked Debbie K. Edmonds, 39, as she got out of her car, authorities said. Her sons, 13 and 10, threw rocks at the dogs and shot them with a BB gun to no avail. The boys watched in horror as their mother was dragged a quarter-mile from their driveway.

These attacks may have as much to do with the hybrid's strength and unstable nature as how they are kept in captivity. Definitely not for the inexperienced, most hybrid handlers agree that these animals require far more time, effort, patience and space than domestic dogs.

That, plus the fact that there has been no research done to find a legally acceptable rabies vaccination for wolf hybrids, has already moved Alabama, Connecticut, Georgia, Illinois, Louisiana, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New York and Wyoming to ban the sale of these animals.

This year, South Dakota and Michigan are considering bans. In February, the Colorado Legislature, prompted in part by the death of Edmonds, approved a one-year study of hybrids to determine what, if any, regulations should be imposed to ensure safety. (In California, possession of a pure wolf is illegal unless permitted by the state Fish and Game Department. Hybrids are regulated by the state only if one of the breeding pair is a pure wolf. However, local regulations may be more restrictive, making hybrids illegal in certain cities or counties, authorities say.)

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