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In South Africa, Animals in Exile

philly.com / Philadelphia Inquirer / November 7, 2004

Imported wolves were trained to track insurgents during apartheid. Now the animals are outcasts.

Robyn Dixon / Los Angeles Times
STORMSRIVER, 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 insurgents in the harsh border regions. The secretive experiment failed because 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."

Terrible watchdogs

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."

Not family pets

O'Carroll and wolf experts in the United States, such as the Wolf Park in Battlefield, Ind., warn that wolf dogs should not be seen as family pets, and even those socialized to humans can attack children, especially if a child falls and cries. O'Carroll's motive, apart from rescuing the wolves, is to educate the public about wolves and hybrids.

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

But 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.