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Some Say New Wolf-Hybrid Ban Has No Bite

Alaska's rule seeks eventual elimination of the mix, which is illegal anyway. But only a DNA test can prove if an animal is one.

November 24, 2002|Mary Pemberton | Associated Press Writer

PALMER, Alaska — Werner Shuster's love affair with wolves began when he was a boy growing up in Yonkers, N.Y., and neighbors owned a timber wolf that became his best friend.

His passion has grown into Wolf Country USA, where he keeps 52 wolf-dog hybrids on chains behind 8-foot stockade fencing at his 42-acre spread north of Anchorage.

But Shuster, 72, and thousands of other hybrid owners in Alaska are facing a new state regulation designed to phase out the hybrids in one generation.

Shuster vows to fight the new regulation tooth and claw, especially if law enforcement tries to take his animals.

"They are going to have to come in here and shoot all my animals and me," Shuster said. "They are our babies."

State wildlife officials say that with the large number of sled dogs in Alaska, there easily could be thousands of hybrids. However, no one knows for sure because owners have ignored a law banning possession of wolf-dog hybrids.

Owners have had a good excuse to flout the law. It is nearly impossible to prosecute without a DNA test to distinguish a dog from a wolf.

The new regulation allows hybrid owners to keep their pets without fear of prosecution as long as certain requirements were met by July 1. The animals had to be implanted with a microchip for identification, spayed or neutered, and licensed and vaccinated.

The regulation also does not allow hybrids to be transferred except within the owner's immediate family. And it prohibits anyone from advertising to sell wolf hybrids.

Those wolf hybrid owners who didn't meet the deadline still face the old law making it illegal to possess one of the animals.

Shuster said the new regulation makes no more sense than the old one still on the books. How, he asks, can the state regulate something it can't prove?

"With that new regulation, every dog in Alaska is illegal," he said. "There is no such thing as a pure wolf. A pure dog is nothing but an offspring of a wolf."

Alaska State Troopers and the Department of Fish and Game say Shuster has a point. Without a DNA test, the new regulation faces the same problems as the old one. But, unlike the old regulation, the new one -- by prohibiting the advertising of wolf hybrids for sale -- can be used to crack down on sales and take the profit motive out of owning the animals.

Troopers are testing the new regulation on JoGenia Sexton, 47, an Anchorage woman cited in August for placing a newspaper ad offering "Alaska Puppies, for real Alaskans ... White Timberwolf ... Lupis hybrid." She was selling the puppies for $600 each.

Sexton could have faced a maximum penalty of $5,000 and a year in jail. But Assistant Atty. Gen. Jack Schmidt, a special prosecutor for wildlife cases, said Sexton -- who says she was unaware of the regulation -- was cited with a noncriminal violation that carries a $300 fine.

The maximum penalty is more appropriate in larger operations, such as Shuster's, he said.

Sexton said the puppies actually are part German shepherd, malamute and Siberian husky. A friend told her that those breeds were part wolf, so she played up the wolf angle to lure buyers.

She said when her family moved from Brigham City, Utah, to Palmer in 1968, they had two Siberian huskies that bred with wild wolves.

"What is the big deal?" she said. "We didn't think anything of it then. People all over Alaska have wolf-dogs."

Trooper Doug Massie said that if Sexton can be successfully prosecuted, they will be taking a look at Wolf Country USA.

Shuster got his first hybrid his first week in Alaska in 1958. He bought a puppy for $5, selecting one from a cardboard box placed on an Anchorage street. He said he did nothing to comply with the new regulation because he can't afford it. Any money generated from his gift shop and wolf tours goes to feeding and caring for the animals, he said.

He advertises wolf cubs for sale on his Web site, and said he has enough deposits to keep him busy for the next five years. But the regulation is making buyers wary.

Shuster says it's his right to advertise his puppies and call them whatever he wants.

"There's still the First Amendment and the Constitution you have to go by," he said as he strolled through the compound, throwing out dog bones and calling each one by name. "Diablo!" "Ninja!" "Sir Lancelot!" "Pee Wee!" "Little Lady!"

Shuster said he used to sell between 25 and 35 wolf cubs a year in Alaska, but the in-state business has dried up because of the regulation. His out-of-state customers have included people in the Lower 48 and Germany, France, Italy, Switzerland, Sweden, Peru, Canada, Japan and Mexico.

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