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Are hybrid pets in jeopardy?

Wolf- and cat-hybrid owners are worried about proposed regulatory code

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LUPINE QUESTION :  Can you tell if this is a wolf, a dog, or some mix of the two? Hybrid-pet owners worry animal control officers won’t be able to determine the difference. - PHOTO BY STEVE E. MILLER
  • PHOTO BY STEVE E. MILLER
  • LUPINE QUESTION : Can you tell if this is a wolf, a dog, or some mix of the two? Hybrid-pet owners worry animal control officers won’t be able to determine the difference.

Dino has the disturbing habit of looking at people as if he wants to eat them. With bright, nasty-looking eyes, he startles walkers when they see him coming around a corner. He’s a huge dog with tall legs and a scraggly gray coat.

“That’s a wolf, isn’t it?” asked a small girl who recently saw Dino lumbering toward her and her mother.

The little girl was asking a good question. Dino has wolf blood in him, but in most ways, he’s a conventional dog.

Dino is one-quarter wolf, according to his owner, Sandy Mackenzie. It seems all his wolfishness comes out in his looks, not his nature. If you dare to let him approach, Dino will likely sidle up to you and stick his nuzzle gently in your face. He seems nice and, according to his owner, is a canine with a kind, quiet, and gentle soul.

Still, the human instinct for self-preservation rarely allows people to turn their back on Dino. Occasionally, he’ll chase after a bird or an impertinent cat, said his proud owner, but he usually stops before the scene gets bloody.

Despite the fact that Dino looks like he can handle himself, Mackenzie is worried about him. Specifically, she’s concerned about his standing with the state of California. Earlier this year, the California Department of Fish and Game proposed changing California Code of Regulation 681, Title 14, a statute that regulates hybrid animal and plant breeds. The move struck dread into the wolf-hybrid and cat-hybrid community. Hybrid pet Internet sites lit up with dire warnings about the new regulations, claiming state wardens would effectively get permission to pick up an animal that looks “wolfy” without any due process.

Wolves and first-generation wolf hybrids (offspring of wolves and dogs) are restricted in California; owners need a permit for either type of animal. Dogs with less than half wolf blood are considered to be dogs. Cats—exotic or not—that have any domestic cat blood in them are considered to be conventional cats.

Owners of exotic and legally permit-free pets worry the beasts could be misidentified as wild animals and therefore treated as restricted.

Specific language has stoked owners’ fears. The prospectus describing the proposed changes said Fish and Game officers didn’t know what to do with emerging animal and plant hybrids: “The Fish and Game Code and its implementing regulations do not contain a general section regulating hybrid plants and animals. A fish, mammal, or plant that is a hybrid of two or more species is not a specific species and therefore is not addressed within most regulations and code sections referring to bag limits, seasons, take, possession limits, and mere possession.”

The next paragraph created the panic.

“Examples are a hybrid between bass species (i.e. largemouth and spotted bass), hybrids of exotic cats, and hybrid canines such as coy-dogs [a cross between a coyote and a dog]. Some individuals have attempted to exploit this loophole in the law, by claiming that their animals are hybrids, and therefore no regulation applies to their take or possession ... The proposal would not only help regulate true hybrids but would help in preventing violators from using a ‘hybrid defense’ by causing the Department to be forced to prove a specific animal is indeed a specific species and therefore regulated. The proposal would give wardens latitude in enforcing laws without having to contend with a biological grey area as it relates to proof of species.”

To Mike Lahane, vice president of Wolfdog Rescue Resources, Inc., these words meant trouble. He was alerted of the impending regulation change late in the game and quickly created a website to tell his fellow hybrid pet owners about the issue.

For him and many others in the wolf dog community, the language meant animal regulatory officials would have the right
to grab any dog they thought looked like a wolf.

“The burden of proof would shift to the owner,” Lahane explained. “They could seize an animal if they thought it was a wolf … even if it was a husky or a German shepherd that seems to look like a wolf to them.”

Though Lahane might seem paranoid about the legal status of his animals, wolf dogs are heavily regulated in most states. According to the National Wolfdog Alliance, 40 states forbid their ownership or breeding. Many wolf dog and domestic/wild hybrid cat owners fear government regulations may eventually drive out their pets.

Lahane said he doesn’t doubt the author of the proposed regulation had good intentions but said he believes the wording could open the door to abuse by unscrupulous animal control officers.

One of the regulation’s authors is Mike McBride, an assistant chief in the California Department of Fish and Game. He said the proposed changes had nothing to do with wolf and cat hybrids; the intent was to help game control officers deal with emerging hybrid species in nature. McBride gave the example of a lake harboring Alabama spotted bass and Florida striped bass. Each type of bass has separate regulations governing how the state manages it, but there are no guidelines for game wardens to regulate the offspring of the two species. McBride said by having wardens treat hybrids with the protection required of their most protected ancestors, the new regulation would help conserve emerging species.

But he said he understands how some of the wording of the initial proposal could have traumatized hybrid owners.

 “The part of the sentence [where hybrid dog and cats was mentioned] should not have been there,” McBride said.

Wolves, wolf-hybrids, and cat mixes are covered in another statute, and the new proposals should never have been thought to deal with anything but wild, emerging hybrid animals and plants, he explained.

The forces of hybrid pet supporters and Fish and Game regulators met on the bureaucratic field of battle on Oct. 1 at a hearing of the Fish and Game Commission, a board which oversees the Fish and Game department and has to approve any changes in animal regulations in California. Speaker after speaker—one with a very wolfy dog in tow—confronted the commission, declaring that the proposed language could open the door to rogue regulation of dogs that merely looked like wolves. The animal regulators declared their intentions were pure and said they had no interest in using any regulations to harass or restrict hybrid pets.

The commission seemed surprised at the turnout and decided to send the regulations back to the Fish and Game department to rewrite them so the intent of the modified code is clearer. The new regulations will be presented to the board for approval in spring of 2010.

Hybrid owners are happy the regulation has been turned back for now, but they don’t feel they’re out of the woods yet. Some still fear their animals will one day be taken away from them.

“These hybrids are just pets like any other,” Mackenzie said.

Dino lowered his snout as he eyed a cat cowering in some bushes far down the street.

“The government should just let them be,” she said.

Contact Staff Writer Robert A. McDonald at rmcdonald@newtimesslo.com.

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