An Unwelcome Mix: Wolf Hybridisation in Italy

Frightened and dishevelled, Ares the pup was found in a landfill. Alberta, too wild to be tamed, was cramped in a cage for 15 months, and Lara was nearly crippled by a gunshot. Until recently, their future was uncertain, and not only due to their history: they are wolf hybrids, a contentious issue in Italy. Wolf-dog crosses are nothing new, so why the controversy?

There are a handful of reasons. An endangered species could essentially be “bred” out of existence, and hybrids have no protected status. Wolves can also be blamed for attacks or shot in cases of mistaken identity, fuelling the fire for an increased hunting quota. Equally, resembling dogs allows hybrids to approach livestock more easily. The problem has become acute enough in Italy to monitor wolf-dog crosses, as in project LIFE M.I.R.C.O Lupo in the Emilia-Romagna region, and investigate causes and solutions to hybridisation, as in Tuscany’s four year project LIFE Ibriwolf.

LIFE M.I.R.C.O-Lupo, named after one of its first hybrids, sterilises and tracks wolf-dog crosses. LIFE Ibriwolf, which ran from 2011-2015, tried to assess the number of hybrids in the Maremma area and explore other practical solutions. Testing howls, noninvasive samples and camera-traps, they found that four of the five local packs included at least one wolfdog cross. The problem of stray and roaming dogs was also highlighted, with 66% of surveyed local people letting their dogs loose at night. Capturing and rehoming strays and sterilising hybrids helped reduce their numbers, but there were more than a few bumps in the road. Namely, few resources to track down the animals, and even hybrid identification proved difficult, with some laboratories returning different results for the same sample. However, it has helped raise awareness and pave the way for more official legislation: at the time of writing, the Ministry of the Environment is revising its plan for wolf conservation. But where does this leave Ares, Alberta and Lara?

Thanks to a campaign, Alberta was transferred to Centro Tutela e Ricerca Fauna Esotica e Selvatica, an animal rescue centre at Monte Adone, where Ares and Lara had already been placed. After rehabilitation and sterilisation, Alberta will join them rolling in the grass and running through the trees in their enclosure. Like the UKWCT wolves, they and other captured wolfdogs will act as “ambassadors” to raise awareness in the wake of LIFE Ibriwolf and LIFE M.I.R.C.O-Lupo. Even if they’re neither wolf nor dog, these hybrids now have a place to call home, and since both projects also affect canine welfare, there may be a more secure future for both sides of the family tree.

This article was originally published in Wolf Print #59, magazine of the UK Wolf Conservation Trust.


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