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Sad Howl of Wolves Recalls Apartheid in South Africa

Robyn Dixon / Los Angeles Times / October 17, 2004

STORMS RIVER, South Africa - It is tough being an alpha wolf - the pack leader - as Michael McDonald knows too well. It means deciding when they eat, where they live and, sometimes, which ones have to die.

When he is near, the packs at Tsitsikamma Wolf Sanctuary, near the southern coast, jump up and start circling. They know he's the top wolf, but, he says, "I irritate them. I have to take all the harsh decisions. I am always the enemy."

In the apartheid era, scientists at Roodeplaat Breeding Enterprises imported the animals from North America in an attempt to create an attack dog that would have a wolf's stamina and sense of smell to track down black insurgents in the harsh border regions. The secretive experiment failed - the wolf hybrids were stubborn and hard to train.

Today, these orphans of apartheid face a troubled future in a land where they will never be at home.

In crime-ridden South Africa, many people believe that no dog is a better deterrent than a hybrid or pure wolf. There's a cachet in owning one, and a brisk trade in wolf dogs advertised in newspapers and on the Internet.

"A lot of people are trying to get rich on these animals," said Colleen O'Carroll, the founder and director of the wolf sanctuary, who disputes breeders' claims that wolves and hybrids make good family pets. She said people were using an endangered species "to create something even more misunderstood than the original."

Owners who buy pure wolves seeking savage guard dogs are often surprised to find that they make terrible watchdogs.

"You have a supposedly ferocious wolf. But when a burglar comes, do you think it will attack? It will hide behind you, because you are the alpha in the pack. If someone rings the doorbell, they go and hide," O'Carroll said.

Breeders of wolf dogs, as the hybrids are known, publish glowing testimonials from happy clients.

But the wolf sanctuary gets hundreds of calls from wolf or wolf-hybrid owners complaining about the odd behaviors of their pets: reducing the yard to a moonscape of holes, digging cavernous dens under the garage, chewing things to pieces, climbing fences and howling to the moon.

One man shot his wolf dog after it ate his chickens. A woman telephoned in tears after her wolf hybrid ate her most valuable thoroughbred foal.

"You can't impose your will on it, because it's half wild animal. You can't expect it to act like a dog," O'Carroll said. "People buy them as a status symbol. It's like saying, 'I've got a Bengal tiger.' It's like a man buying a Porsche as opposed to a VW."

It's not clear how many wolves remain in South Africa or how the original wolves survived after breeding experiments were abandoned. But the Tsitsikamma sanctuary cares for 35 wolves, has 23 on its waiting list and is expecting to take in a new litter of pure wolf pups next month from someone connected with one of the original breeding programs.

The sanctuary estimates that there are about 200 pure wolves in South Africa and tens of thousands of hybrids.

O'Carroll opened the sanctuary in 2000 after tracing wolves left over from various state breeding projects. It accepts only pure wolves.

"I get asked every day, 'Why don't you just put the things down? They don't belong here,' " said O'Carroll, a sentimentalist with a core of steel.

She is the patron of a lost cause. Ask her or McDonald about the future of the wolves at Tsitsikamma, and both look sadly into the distance: "No future," they murmur.

"It's a very sad story," O'Carroll said. "There's nothing we can do with them. We can't send them back to North America. They're animals in exile."

Rescuing the wolves is an undertaking ruinous to one's bank balance: Conservation organizations and sponsors are not interested in helping to save animals in places where they don't belong, so the sanctuary survives on private donations.

O'Carroll emptied her bank account and sold off four apartments to keep the sanctuary going. It was built by hand: They couldn't afford power tools.

"I have to have a screw loose somewhere," she said. "But I have a passion for them."

She says she forgets the financial stress when she sits near her favorite enclosures in the evenings, watching her beloved wolves playing, swimming and racing around.

And at night, when the wolves howl, raising their eerie, beautiful music to the stars, nothing else matters.

McDonald, 42, used to work "in security" but won't be more specific.

Now he cares for the wolves - with no salary or even a pension, often surviving on the same meat the wolves eat: unwanted cow and calf carcasses donated by dairy farmers. He has few belongings and no money for clothes. He once had to pawn a watch to pay for the sanctuary's gasoline, and other times walked to collect dead cows with a wheelbarrow.

"It's a seriously hard life," he said.

Ask him why he does it and he sidesteps the question with a flurry of self-deprecating banter: "There was no one else to do it."

But he feels the wolves are his destiny, even if they don't always appreciate him.

The wolves, always ready to challenge the alpha, sometimes bite McDonald. But the day a female named Cleo nipped him on the rump, he felt a strange elation.

"It meant she had accepted me," he said. "We were equals."