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Wolves in Dog’s Clothing
Are they Wolves? A brush with an illegal breeder in the sagebrush country of California reveals a real threat to ranchers and native species.
By Jim Waddell
Up at the ranch where the rabbits run wild (see previous article on the Savage A17), the human population in this county is sparse at best, resembling that of rural Wyoming or Montana, certainly not what one would expect in California. The area is considered high desert with an abundance of sagebrush, the perfect habitat of the jackrabbit.
This county is more than 4,700 square miles with a total population of around 30,000 souls, two-thirds of which is in the only incorporated city and county seat. It’s purely speculation but perhaps this is the reason a grizzled old woman with nefarious intentions chose this area to raise and sell what she calls hybrid dogs with small percentages of wolf in the genes.
I made my first trip to that ranch nearly two years ago when I answered the call for help in controlling jackrabbits that were ravaging the alfalfa hay fields. After the first night’s hunt I decided it was time to climb in one of the UTV’s and explore the countryside.
Aside from the sage country, there are several alfalfa fields, each one 500 acres in size. As I was driving the area, I noticed an antelope herd, roughly 60 to 70 in number. I was about a third of a mile from them and as I got closer, they started moving away from me, going in the same direction I was.
I stopped to watch them as they had slowed their retreat when all of a sudden the herd bolted and ran from my right to my left, an abrupt change of direction. The herd was still several hundred yards to my front when this happened but then I saw what spooked them. Three dogs were chasing them. Not for long though as antelope vs. canine in a speed race is no contest at all. In a matter of seconds, those antelope were almost in the next county.
This was puzzling as I had been told there were no neighboring ranches within miles. I started after these dogs as they were still in this same field. After the antelope fled, the dogs remained in the area, sniffing for whatever they thought they could find and I was able to close the distance to about 200 yards or so before they were aware of my presence.
One of the canines turned to face me and just stood there as I got to within 100 yards or so. I slowed way down and continued toward him at a snail’s pace. At this distance, the animal started to look just like a wolf. Granted, I have never seen one in real life, except maybe in a zoo when I was a kid but I’ve watched enough Animal Planet and outdoor programs to know what a wolf looks like and this guy looked the part, from his much-larger-than-a-German-Shepherd size, to the distinctive head and facial features including the slanted eyes, short cropped ears and gangly legs that looked to be too long for his body.
I continued to creep forward to see what the animals would do. I was so focused on what I believe was the alpha male I paid little attention to the other two. I think one was mostly black. Those two ambled off in the opposite direction from the antelope but Mr. Alpha held his ground. I stopped about 30 yards from him. He didn’t show any signs of aggression toward me but he didn’t show any signs of submission either.
Now whatever doubts I might have had about this animal being a wolf were gone. And now I WAS puzzled as I knew there were not supposed to be any wolves in the wild in California and hadn’t been since way, way back, maybe a century ago.
My hunter’s instinct was to take a shot at him but I couldn’t do that. He was a magnificent looking creature. Add to that, my only armament was a single action .45 Colt I had just purchased and I hadn’t shot it enough to become proficient or confident I could hit anything with it. That being said, I was on red alert in case Mr. Alpha decided to get all territorial and upset I was in his space.
As these thoughts were swirling around in my noggin, the wolf, never taking his eyes off me, stuck his nose in the air, sniffing the wind. It must have been his way of investigating to determine if I was a threat, or maybe lunch.
The wolf’s companions by this time had walked away, heading back in the direction from which they had come. The alpha male turned and slowly followed the others. He went 30 or 40 feet then stopped to watch me some more. I just sat there, still almost not believing what I was seeing. The others continued their retreat although they showed no signs of fear or alarm at my presence. Mr. Alpha would follow awhile then again turned to see what I was doing.
This scenario continued for the next 10-15 minutes until the animals left this hay field and disappeared into the sage. That was when I started kicking myself for not getting any pictures. As I write this, I’m kicking myself even harder as it would have been really nice to add some photos to go along with the story. In my defense, when all of this was taking place the last thing on my mind was writing about it.
I headed back to the ranch yard to talk to Gary, the foreman. He said, “Oh, I guess I didn’t tell you, there’s a woman who lives on a small piece of ground a mile or so east of here who apparently raises wolf/dog hybrids.” Gary told me he hadn’t seen any of these animals personally but some of the ranch hands spotted them running loose which probably answers why they found a week old colt that had been killed and half eaten. Another rancher, a friend of Gary’s lives about 5 miles away and has lost calves to what he is sure are these wolf/dogs.” The rancher’s name is John and he’s vowed to kill any he sees on his range.
Fast forward to this year. I returned a couple months ago to check out the rabbit situation that had actually improved since more sage land had been converted into hay fields. But now a new pest was starting to cause problems for the hay operations: The ground squirrel. I was prepared and brought a couple of varmint rifles and had a wonderful time thinning the population but that’s another story.
Since my encounter with the “wolf-dog” trio, neighbor John did in fact come upon several of these problem canines. He caught them in the act of feeding on one of his Hereford calves. As he brought his pick-up to a halt and grabbed for his Ruger Ranch Rifle, the animals scattered and headed for the brush. John said he got several shots off and knows he hit one of the animals as he saw it flinch and heard it yelp when he shot but it continued on and made good its escape along with the others.
John is a regular visitor and stopped by the second day I was there. I asked him about the incident. His Ruger is a .223 and he was disappointed it didn’t have the power to down the animal. When questioned, John didn’t know where he hit it but knows he did by the way it acted. I asked him about the ammunition he used. He showed me the box that was the Winchester USA generic brand. It was 55 grain with full metal jackets. He admitted he didn’t know much about guns or ammunition. To him a bullet is a bullet. I explained it wasn’t for lack of power that the animal didn’t drop, more than likely it was the bullet type and/or shot placement.
John said he didn’t know if they were pure wolf, pure dog or some mixture of both but said if they were dogs, they were the biggest German Shepherd-type he had ever seen. He didn’t see them up close and personal like I did and he didn’t see their faces or heads except at long distance.
Two days later the weather turned foul. Cold, intermittent rain and gusty winds made for poor varmint shooting. I told Gary I thought I would drive around the countryside and check things out. It was also a bad weather day for ranch chores so he climbed in with me and off we went.
I turned down a road a mile or so from ranch headquarters and noticed a series of pens, a ratty looking travel trailer and some smaller outbuildings that were about 80 yards down a dirt lane off the main road. As we drove by, I saw several canines lying in the driveway. I also saw what looked like a man bending over getting something out of the trunk of a car. Gary said, “That’s where the wolf woman lives.”
As we continued on I asked Gary if he wanted to go talk to them. He looked at me and said, “Not particularly, the word is out she doesn’t think much of us, she told county officials we have been coming into her driveway, shooting her dogs. As far as I know, the only one of her animals that’s been shot is the one John got when he came upon those eating his calf.”
I suggested as how I would love to get a close up of her animals and just check the place out. I asked Gary if he and the lady had ever been face to face, meaning would she recognize him. When he said they hadn’t, I said we could go in there and tell them we were from someplace else, looking for real estate. He reluctantly agreed so we turned around and turned into her driveway.
We drove by a few animals lying loose along the lane. Most of them looked to be some type of Shepherd or Shepherd/Huskie mix but there was one that looked to be mostly wolf. He acted it too. Not vicious but sneaky, watching and with a definite wary attitude that was just different than the others. Hard to explain, you had to be there. This guy was a silver-grey color with yellowish eyes and very wolf-like features.
As we approached the yard area, there were numerous pens made of heavy gauge hog-wire. The pens were of differing sizes but most were about 25 feet square. About half of them were occupied and those had dogs or dog-wolf combinations of varying colors.
I pulled up behind the man we saw from the road who was bent over in the trunk of a car. He turned to look and what we saw was an older man who looked like he had just been dragged through mud. His facial expression matched his looks. Sour. He stared at us for an uncomfortable half a minute. I wasn’t about to get out of my truck as these canines, whatever species they were, were all over the place.
As Gary said, “Let’s get outta here,” the guy ambled over to my open window. He didn’t say anything so I asked about the animals. I told him they were really magnificent looking creatures and were there any for sale. He said, “I’ll go get the boss,” and walked over to one of the outbuildings. He stuck his head in the door and out came what turned out to be a woman (we weren’t sure at the time). She came over to my open window and asked what we wanted. I told her we were passing through, noticed her dogs and was curious about them.
This woman could have been anywhere from 40 to 80 years old. She was skin and bones, the skin that was showing was wrinkled, weather-worn and long unwashed. She was all bundled up in an old air force flight jacket with the fur collar. On top was an old, dirty Elmer Fudd hat, the kind with ear flaps. The few teeth she had showing were stained with what looked like tobacco but could have been anything.
“You boys ain’t from the county are ya,” she asked. Before I could answer, she said the county has been after her and her pets for months. I was shaking my head, no when she asked, “You ain’t from that ranch over yonder are ya?” Nodding her head in the direction of Gary’s headquarters. Again, before I could say anything, she said, “Those guys are just plain mean, they been comin’ up into my driveway and shootin’ my dogs and leavin’ them lay right where they was shot.”
Finally I was able to tell her we were just passing through when we saw her animals and wondered about them. I told her some of them sure looked like wolves. Then she said, “Of course they are, a blind man could see that.” Then she added quickly, “They ain’t pure wolf, none of them are, that would be illegal. The closest I got to pure wolf is 90%.” She went on to explain she had all types and percentages of Wolf-Huskie combinations.
I said I might want one, were they for sale. “Yep, ever’ one of ‘em except for my breeding stock,” then she nodded at a pen that contained two very large and very mean looking males and there was no doubt they were ALL wolf. One was white with a small amount of tan on a shoulder and tail, the other was of mixed color. They were both constantly pacing in their pen, going back and forth, watching us the entire time we were there.
She went on to explain she had just shy of 400 animals six months ago but the county caught up with her and she’d been in court several times, trying to keep her operation. She lost a hearing then won a hearing and now she claims to be in the final stages of a settlement. She had agreed to be down to 80 animals in a few months.
I asked why some were caged and others free to roam. “Them’s my pets, the ones runnin’ free. They wouldn’t harm a jackrabbit.” Gary and I looked at each other, deciding to keep our thoughts to ourselves until we were out of there. I told her I wanted to take a picture to show my wife the pups and she said, “You ain’t takin no pitchers, you put that damn thing away.” I complied and decided it was time to leave as the lady’s companion was watching us with as much suspicion and sneakiness as the wolves. As we were backing out, Gary said, “That was about as much fun as acupuncture, let’s get out of here.”
I’m writing this two months later. I talked to Gary on the phone a few days ago and he said a sheriff’s deputy had stopped in the yard and told him they conducted a raid on her place and took all of her animals. The deputy left his card and asked to be notified should anyone see any more wolves or other suspicious creatures. Gary hasn’t gone back to look and has no intentions of doing so.