No sooner had I posted my most recent blog entry on continued crossbreeding between wolves and livestock guarding dogs in the Georgian Caucasus than a geneticist friend sent me notice from the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife that a young female wolf had been captured and spayed after being seen cavorting with a local livestock guard dog. The surgery revealed that she was pregnant, presumably with puppies the dog had sired.
Why do that, I wondered, in the face of mounting evidence that wolves and dogs had been interbreeding since their first incomplete separation more than 15,000 years ago? As recently as two years ago, researchers examining the genetics of village dogs, found that the livestock guard dog in a Lebanese village was in fact 100 percent wolf.
That is a simple question with a complicated answer that says more about our attitudes toward nature and its citizens than it does about the animals involved. They, after all, wolf and dog, are merely living according to their natures.
I asked Donny Martorello, head of large carnivore conservation—cougars, grizzlies, and wolves—for the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, why wildlife biologists had not simply let nature take its course with the hybrids. If conventional wisdom is right most of the pups would die soon after birth, if not before. Over time the descendants of those who survived and reproduced might contribute something to the wolf gene pool, but there were a lot of ifs and maybes and mights in that scenario.
Martorello explained that his agency desired as a matter of policy to have “the most pure wolfstock possible for repopulating the state.” It is an article of faith among wildlife managers that hybrids between wild and domestic animals are wrong and must not be permitted. This attitude has deep roots in the modern environmental movement, which adopted the wolf as the symbol of wilderness, a species essential to the health of an ecosystem.
The change reflected the thinking and influence of Aldo Leopold, among others. He came to see the wolf as the embodiment of wilderness—a dramatic shift from his initial embrace of the Anglo-American attitude, dating to the 16th century when the English killed all of their wolves to protect their sheep but more importantly the king’s stag herd. Wolves were still killers—but in their world, wilderness, their killing had a place.
With no tradition of living with wolves, Americans went from seeing them as representatives of nature that had to be beaten back for the advance of civilization, to viewing them as wild majestic animals capable of restoring ecosystems, smarter, stronger, faster than any domestic dog.
So profound was the transformation that the wolf became one of the first species listed under the Endangered Species Act of 1973. It would not do for this noble creature to carry dog blood; the mere suggestion of it caused an entire lineage, save for one animal, of endangered Mexican wolves to be killed, though they were later shown to be pure.
But if Washington’s wolves had to be pure, what about its guard dogs? I asked Donny Martorello why, since they had the wolf collared already, they did not capture the pups and raise them to be livestock protection dogs to see how they would perform? Martorello skirted the question. “We reached out to the people at Wolf Haven International in Washington and other groups,” he said, “but none had the resources to care for them.” In any event that avenue is no longer open.
Through the first half of the 19th century in America, there was a lively debate among American sheepmen about whether the British style of sheep management, using active herders alone, was better than the use of livestock guarding dogs, the best of whom were known for their ability on a word from their shepherds to walk into a large flock of sheep and pick out one of their own who had wandered into it. They would then calmly lead their charge back to her own flock.
Not until Richard Nixon banned the use of compound 1080, which killed not only wolves and coyotes but anything else that ingested it, did Americans turn to livestock guarding dogs. They are still learning how to use the dogs, including how best to breed and raise them. Having wolf hybrids, used in other parts of the world, might have contributed significantly to our knowledge.
In recent years, the habit of canine geneticists has been to emphasize the genetic differences between dogs and wolves in an effort to create a wall between them. But at the same time, the scientists’ own research is showing that wolves and dogs interbred freely for thousands of years following their split and that despite intensive artificial selection in the past 150 to 200 years, as human breeders have sought to remake dogs, there is little genetic difference between them, so little that they are best viewed along a continuum of morphology and behavior—not as discrete entities. That latter is a human view, representing the worst sort of anthropomorphism because we are applying our definitions to nature and not drawing them from what we observe.
As John Paul Scott pointed out in his 1950 paper on sociobiology in the Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences [paywall] the wolf exists along a continuum of dogs, larger than some, smaller than others, more aggressive than some, less aggressive than others. The wolf is a dog, and the dog is a wolf. Initially, they recognized little difference between themselves, as did people, but of late we have sought for social and political reasons to emphasize differences, just as we have sought to maximize differences between breeds, despite knowing that the differences are not greater than the similarities.
In fact, they are the same and different, genetically, behaviorally, physically and psychologically, their natures determined by how those elements mix and what they make of the result.