Werner Shuster's love affair with wolves began when he was a boy growing up in Yonkers, N.Y., and neighbors owned a timberwolf that became his best friend.
His passion has grown into Wolf Country USA, where the 72-year-old Palmer resident keeps 52 wolf-dog hybrids on chains behind 8-foot stockade fencing at his 42-acre spread north of Anchorage.
But Shuster and thousands of other hybrid owners in Alaska are facing a new state regulation designed to phase out the hybrids in one generation.
Shuster vows to fight the new regulation tooth and nail, especially if law enforcement tries to take his animals.
"They are going to have to come in here and shoot all my animals and me," Shuster said. "They are our babies."
State wildlife officials say with the large number of sled dogs in Alaska there easily could be thousands of hybrids. However, no one knows for sure because owners have ignored a law banning the possession of wolf-dog hybrids.
Owners have had a good excuse to flout the law. It is nearly impossible to prosecute without a DNA test to distinguish a dog from a wolf.
The new regulation allows hybrid owners to keep their pets without fear of prosecution, as long as certain requirements were met by July 1. The animals had to be implanted with a microchip for identification, spayed or neutered, and licensed and vaccinated.
The regulation also does not allow hybrids to be transferred except within the owner's immediate family. And it prohibits anyone from advertising to sell wolf hybrids.
Those wolf hybrid owners who didn't meet the deadline still face the old law making it illegal to possess one of the animals.
Shuster said the new regulation makes no more sense than the old one still on the books. How, he asks, can the state regulate something it can't prove?
"With that new regulation, every dog in Alaska is illegal," he said. "There is no such thing as a pure wolf. A pure dog is nothing but an offspring of a wolf."
Alaska State Troopers and the Department of Fish and Game say Shuster has a point. Without a DNA test, the new regulation faces the same problems as the old regulation. But, unlike the old regulation, the new one - by prohibiting the advertising of wolf hybrids for sale - can be used to crack down on sales and take the profit motive out of owning the animals.
Troopers are testing the new regulation on JoGenia Sexton, a 47-year-old Anchorage woman cited in August for placing a newspaper ad offering "Alaska Puppies, for real Alaskans ... White Timberwolf ... Lupis hybrid." She was selling the puppies for $600 each. No court date has been set.
Sexton could have faced a maximum penalty of $5,000 and a year in jail. But Assistant Attorney General Jack Schmidt, a special prosecutor for wildlife cases, said Sexton - who said she was unaware of the new regulation - was cited with a noncriminal violation that carries a $300 fine.
The maximum penalty is more appropriate in larger operations, such as Shuster's, he said.
Sexton said the puppies actually are part German shepherd, malamute and Siberian husky. A friend told her those breeds were part wolf so she played up the wolf angle to lure buyers.
"What is the big deal?" she said. "We didn't think anything of it then. People all over Alaska have wolf-dogs."
Trooper Doug Massie said if Sexton can be successfully prosecuted they will be taking a look at Wolf Country USA.
Shuster got his first hybrid his first week in Alaska in 1958. He bought a puppy for $5, selecting one from a cardboard box placed on an Anchorage street. He said he did nothing to comply with the new regulation because he can't afford it. Any money generated from his gift shop and wolf tours goes to feeding and caring for the animals, he said.
He advertises wolf cubs for sale on his Web site, and said he has enough deposits to keep him busy for the next five years. But the regulation is making buyers wary.
Shuster said it's his right to advertise his puppies and call them whatever he wants.
"There's still the First Amendment and the Constitution you have to go by," he said, as he strolled through the compound, throwing dog bones and calling each one by name. "Diablo!" "Ninja!" "Sir Lancelot!" "Pee Wee!" "Little Lady!"
Shuster said he used to sell 25 to 35 wolf cubs a year in Alaska, but the in-state business has dried up because of the regulation. His out-of-state customers have included people in the Lower 48 and Germany, France, Italy, Switzerland, Sweden, Peru, Canada, Japan and Mexico.
Wolf-dog hybrids pose an additional problem in Alaska because of its healthy population of 7,000 to10,000 wild wolves, wildlife experts say. While possession of a wild animal or the hybrid of a wild animal has been illegal in Alaska for years, the Board of Game outlawed wolf-dog hybrids specifically in 1999 after determining they posed a genetic threat to wild wolves. However, the DNA problem kept the regulation from being enforced.
The concern is that wild wolves will lose their natural fear of humans if they become interbred with hybrids and become potentially more dangerous to humans.
Wolves also can get every disease that domestic dogs do, including rabies, said Alaska Department of Fish and Game biologist Rick Sinnott.
"There are all kinds of problems with interbreeding," he said.
Several large groups, including the Humane Society of the United States and American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, oppose keeping and breeding hybrids.
"We don't think they are suitable pets," said Stephanie Shain, spokeswoman for the Humane Society of the United States. "It is unfair to expect the wildness to come out of an animal and expect them to function like a pet."
Wildlife advocate Karen Deatherage, who helped write the new regulation, said hybrids are nearly impossible to train, hard to contain and unpredictable when reaching sexual maturity.
"When you breed a dog with a wolf you have essentially bred the fear out of the wolf," Deatherage said. "Wild wolves have a healthy ... fear of humans."
Shuster said hybrids are misunderstood. Given the right owner, he said, they make wonderful pets and are more intelligent than the average dog.
"Like any dog, they need tender loving care," Shuster said. "If you had a couple of kids would you desert them 'cause people don't like them?"
There have been instances in which hybrids were threatening. In 1995, two wolf hybrids attacked a dog in Anchorage and nearly killed it. In 1998, police shot a hybrid that had been terrorizing a neighborhood north of Anchorage for five days, killing dogs and chasing a child. Last year, a Fairbanks girl was bitten by the family dog, a husky-wolf hybrid.
Earlier this year, however, a Rottweiler-wolf hybrid was credited with saving a family when fire broke out in their Fairbanks home.
Massie, the state trooper, said it appears hybrid owners are treating the new regulation much like the old one.
"I don't think there is much compliance out there yet," he said.
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