Call of the Wild
Raising Awareness and Appreciation of Wolfdogs at Howling Woods Farm
By Taylor Smith
Founded by animal lover Mike Hodanish, Howling Woods Farm in Jackson aims to educate the public about the true nature of wolves. In contrast to what many read as children in Little Red Riding Hood and observed in numerous cartoons, wolves and wolfdogs are actually submissive creatures that are more comfortable living within a pack of other wolves than being surrounded by people, highways, and fast cars.
The modern world has not been easy on the plight of wolves. In much of America, wolves have been shot to extinction under the notion that they were violent, devilish creatures that would drag a child into the woods or pick apart a farmer’s animal herd, one-by-one. Hodanish tries to educate visitors to Howling Woods that this storyline is simply not true.
Hodanish’s own experience with wolves began back in the 1980s when he was living in Southern Arizona, adjacent to the Sonoran Desert Museum. One night, a young, lone dog (that looked very much like a wolf) started wandering into his carport. It looked hungry and Hodanish and his roommate at the time began leaving scraps out for the animal. Eventually, Hodanish decided to adopt the dog as a pet; however, within the span of a few months, the dog doubled in size and its submissive, cautious behavior became extremely exaggerated. This, says Hodanish, was his first clue that the animal was, genetically, part wolf.
Hodanish named the canine Heidi, and the two became extremely attached. On long walks through the mountains of the Sonoran Desert, Heidi and Hodanish would wander the natural landscape, enjoying the peace, solitude, and companionship of one another. Eventually, Hodanish relocated to New Jersey and brought Heidi with him. Heidi unfortunately contracted Lyme disease and, after suffering from subsequent kidney failure, passed away. After that, Hodanish’s job didn’t allow him to have a dog due to the amount of traveling involved. But his head and heart didn’t forget Heidi.
Eventually, Hodanish adopted two wolf pups while living in Bordentown (much to the chagrin of his neighbors). The intimidating appearance of the dogs, combined with their occasional howling, left a few people concerned, but others would approach the fence line and ask Hodanish all about the animals, their curiosity peaked.
Hodanish then moved to Jackson and settled into a more rural area nestled within the Pine Barrens and bordered by protected land. There, he sought to establish what is today Howling Woods Farm, a wolf and wolfdog hybrid sanctuary that is open by appointment only to visitors. As a nonprofit, the sanctuary seeks to educate the public about wolves, while also attempting to adopt out wolfdogs to suitable homes.
Howling Wolf Farm’s large wolfdogs pose for a group of visitors in February 2017. (Photo by Matthew DiFalco)
One-hour tours at the farm are extremely informative. Visitors typically walk through three or four pens and visit with the wolfdogs, interacting with them and getting to observe their personalities. Just like people, says Hodanish, the animals at Howling Woods have their own personal preferences and mode of interacting with the human visitors. While some of the dogs may affectionately rest their giant paws on your chest for a playful “hello,” others are slightly more wary and will observe from a distance.
Hodanish and his small team of volunteers also visit schools, libraries, scouting events, and fairs, where they attempt to answer any questions that people may have about wolves. Most people are surprised to learn how fearful wolves can be, along with how well they take care of their offspring. Wolves and wolfdogs become extremely anxiety ridden and depressed if they are forced into isolation, and they thrive in a pack system. For this reason, anyone who applies to adopt a wolfdog from Howling Woods must meet a strict series of requirements including the companionship of other preexisting dogs and no children.
“Most of the people that adopt our animals are senior couples that have time on their hands or younger folks in their twenties who have more time to spend with the animals, taking them to parks,” says Hodanish. “They also need to have a large, fenced-in yard. These aren’t house pets.”
Adoptable wolfdogs will want to live primarily outside, so the overall backyard and home setting is an extremely important part of the application. The animals are dangerous with children, says Hodanish, primarily because you can’t predict the behavior of the child around the animal and the animal, in turn, doesn’t know how to respond.
Applicants also must bring their preexisting dog (or dogs) to the sanctuary to see how they get along with the potential adoptee. The companionship aspect of the adoption process is key, says Hodanish, because the wolfdogs do not do well as solitary animals.
“Out of every 100 applications, we have one successful adoption,” he says. “They have to want the animal for the right reasons.”
Samson is a mix of wolf and Alaskan malamute. He and three other wolfdogs from Howling Woods Farm appeared in the 2010 film The Sorcerer’s Apprentice from Walt Disney Pictures. (Photo courtesy of Howling Woods Farm)
So, how do these wolfdog hybrids find their way to Howling Woods Farm? Many of the animals were purchased from breeders, and once they grow to their full size and start to exhibit more wolf-like behaviors (as opposed to a domesticated dog) they are turned into shelters, and the shelters then contact Howling Woods.
“Typically, by 7-8 months old, the dogs become aware of their unnatural surroundings and will develop separation anxiety and become destructive in the home,” says Hodanish. “Sometimes, when they get to the animal shelters, they are euthanized, and sometimes they contact us. We probably get two to three requests to take in wolfdogs every week, but we only have a certain amount of space, and I don’t want to take on more animals than we can handle.”
When asked if there is a law in New Jersey that regulates how a public animal shelter should handle the arrival of a wolfdog, Hodanish says, “There is no law as to how a shelter responds to receiving a wolfdog. Decisions are internal to the shelter and township. Sometimes, someone will have a purebred Alaskan malamute or Siberian husky, but if they tell the shelter that the dog is part wolf, the shelter may feel obligated to euthanize it. Other times, the shelters actually become fond of the wolfdogs and will contact us to rehome them.”
Hodanish and his team do Embark testing (embarkvet.com) to determine if there is any wolf DNA in the dogs. This just involves taking a cheek swab from the dogs. The DNA testing is largely done for the personal knowledge of the staff. All the ambassador dogs, as they are known at Howling Woods, have had DNA testing. These are the animals that are typically included in public education events. According to Hodanish, the ambassador dogs are 30-90 percent wolf and can be walked on a leash into a building with people.
“Most of the dogs that are primarily wolf are actually quite timid and afraid,” says Hodanish. “They stay away from people as much as they can, and for good reason — they don’t want to get shot by a human or run-over by a car.”
No two wolfdogs are alike. Usually, they are a combination of wolf with Siberian husky, Alaskan malamute, or German shepherd, but can be mixed with other breeds as well. (Photo courtesy of Howling Woods Farm)
Wolfdogs can weigh anywhere from 60-120 lbs. and are built more like a deer than a dog — with long legs and a high, narrow, chest. “When they lose their winter coats in the summer, they look about 30 pounds lighter,” says Hodanish.
The canines eat a diet of raw chicken leg quarters supplemented with kibble and other nutrients. All the animals prefer to live outside on the sanctuary’s seven-acre property. In the summer, horse troughs are filled with fresh water, so the animals can cool themselves off with a quick bath. By far, the wolfdogs dramatically prefer New Jersey winters to summers. Hodanish notes that the dogs will stay out all day in the freezing winter temperatures, and it is quite evident that they are relaxed, comfortable, and enjoying themselves when the thermometer drops to glacial levels.
All the animals at Howling Woods are spayed, neutered, microchipped, and vaccinated. The older animals require extensive vet care. Ninety percent of Howling Woods’ funding comes from tour donations. The tours require a donation of $20 per person, but personal donations can also be made online at howlingwoods.org.
Tours are Tuesday through Friday at 11am, 12pm, and 1pm. Weekend tours are on Saturday and Sunday from 11am to 7pm. Howling Woods is closed to the public on Mondays. Visit the website to learn more about how to have a howling good time at the sanctuary this fall.
Howling Woods Farm provides learning experiences to the public about wolves and wolfdogs. (Photo by Matthew DiFalco)