Yamnuska Wolfdog Sanctuary

Story and photos Jessica Melnychuk

Irresponsible dog ownership has long been a contentious issue throughout the world, with animal rescue facilities frequently filling up with animals that have been abandoned or surrendered by owners who can’t – or won’t – provide the proper care their animal needs.

Wolfdog ownership provides these same challenges on a much different scale.

What is a wolfdog? As the name suggests, a wolfdog is a hybrid mix that is part wolf, part domestic dog. Mixed breeding like this rarely occurs in nature; rather, breeders have caught on to the popularity of wolves and will sell them for thousands of dollars in profits.

In Alberta, provincial law states that wolves cannot be owned as a pet, but owning a wolf/dog cross is perfectly legal, regardless of the amount of wolf-content in the animal. However, many people don’t realize the additional challenges that come along with owning a wolfdog, and, as a result, many are surrendered or euthanized as they have nowhere else to go.

At the Yamnuska Wolfdog Sanctuary, a non-profit organization located about 45 minutes outside of Calgary near Ghost Lake, there are 23 permanent residents living in seven different enclosures. The sanctuary provides a home for wolfdogs that have been displaced, but staff are also working to raise awareness and educate the public, encouraging people to think twice before buying a wolfdog.

The sanctuary was founded seven years ago by Georgina de Caigny, who had previously purchased her own wolfdog from a local breeder in Alberta. After finding out how many wolfdogs are euthanized because their owners are unable to care for their unique needs, she left her career in civil engineering to dedicate herself full-time into establishing the sanctuary and rescuing other wolfdogs from a tragic end.

The original Yamnuska Wolfdog Sanctuary opened in 2011 near Canmore. They quickly outgrew this space, and moved to their current location four years ago, where they can continue expanding and providing a home for more animals who need one.

“[Wolfdogs] are not like dogs,” says Robyn Northway, a tour guide at the sanctuary. “They’re a one-of-a-kind type of animal. They’re not like what you see on TV or in the movies.”

Northway says the portrayal of wolfdogs in popular culture is one of the biggest issues with wolfdogs ending up in the wrong homes. The “direwolf” Ghost on HBO’s Game of Thrones is actually a cousin to one of the wolfdogs at the sanctuary.

“People don’t realize what they’re getting into,” she says. She points to one of the sanctuary’s permanent residents, Loki, as an example of how challenging even a low-content wolfdog can be. Loki has a knack for mischievous behaviour, having escaped from his previous owner’s backyard more than 13 times, despite the yard having a six foot fence.

“He’s a master escape artist,” Northway laughs.

Although Loki and many of the other wolfdogs at the sanctuary have low wolf-content, most are still not a good fit for adoption. Many have experienced challenging upbringings including abuse and neglect, and some simply exhibit typical wolf-like behaviour that prevents them from being a good fit for domestication, particularly being fearful of people.

“It’s pretty much ingrained in them,” says Northway. “Even when someone new starts working here, it takes a while for [the wolfdogs] to get comfortable with you. You can’t play or act with them like you would with a dog. Even with the proper socialization and training, they’re comfortable but nowhere near as comfortable as, say, a dog would be. They might come up and say hello, but they’re not going to greet you with a wagging tail.”

While the sanctuary plans to expand and build more enclosures as soon as possible, it’s not enough to keep up with demand. Last year, two new enclosures opened up, and within a month the sanctuary was at capacity again after it brought in five new wolfdogs.

“There’s still such a large portion of people that really have no idea what’s going on,” Northway says. She hopes that by educating the public about wolfdogs and the challenges of owning them as a pet, fewer people will need the sanctuary to come to the rescue.

Northway says that if it weren’t for the sanctuary – which is the only wolfdog rescue in Canada – many of these animals would likely be euthanized.

Funding remains one of the sanctuary’s biggest challenges. While more enclosures need to be built, the cost is steep, at approximately $50,000 per enclosure.

The sanctuary relies on support from the public, with funding coming mainly from tours of the sanctuary, along with merchandise sales and donations. This money helps ensure the wolfdogs can be fed, their medical issues can be treated, and helps the sanctuary with their expansion plans in order to rescue more wolfdogs. Northway says they hope to expand upon their current resources to provide more types of tours in the near future.

Currently there are three types of tours, with one of the most popular being an interactive tour that allows visitors to get up close with the wolfdogs. Northway notes that early winter is the best time to visit, as the wolfdogs tend to be much more active when it’s cool outside.

And don’t worry about being cold if you decide to visit this winter. Northway says, “[The wolfdogs] totally just warm your heart.”

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