Interview with Sue Hull

Sue Hull is a member of the APBC, and a Wolf Specialist.

Gill: Firstly may I thank you for giving us the time to share your knowledge. May we start by asking you how you first became involved with dogs?

Sue: I got my first dog when I was nine years old. He was a Lab / Shepherd cross. I read everything that I could get hold of about dogs and this included the books by Jack London, you know, “Call of the Wild” and “White Fang”. These influenced me a great deal and not only led to an enduring love affair with the Arctic but also my passion for Huskies and Wolves. As a result of this, I not only worked on glaciers, but ended up with a team of sled dogs!

Gill: What made you first become interested in Wolves and study them?

Sue: It was the Jack London thing again I’m afraid. However, it was a couple of years after I got my first Siberian Husky that I started up the Wolf Society of Great Britain in 1985. It was purely because no such organisation existed and there was really no literature to speak of. It seems amazing now, but if you were interested in wolves there was absolutely nothing. The Wolf Society aimed to give people a chance to learn about wolves and to publicise the conservation problems for this animal. We were actually only the third wolf group in existence in Europe.

Gill: What is the most interesting factor you found in your Wolf study?

Sue: That’s a difficult one because I find it all so interesting. I think that perhaps it has been trying to discover the evolutionary reasons why wolves behave as they do. It is often so different to the popular ideas that seem to abound in books.

Gill: How would you compare domesticated dog to the Wolf?

Sue: Dogs are amazing animals. So many people want to put wolves on a pedestal and imply that domesticated dogs are degenerate and stupid. In reality they are two versions of the same animal adapted to different ecological niches. Dogs cannot survive and reproduce in the environments that wolves are successful in. Equally, wolves cannot survive in the world that dogs live in.

Gill: Can you tell us some more about the Wolf sanctuary you have links with please?

Sue: If people want to get close to wolves then I would suggest that they contact Wolf Watch UK that runs a sanctuary for displaced wolves. It has a beautiful setting on the Shropshire – Welsh border and typically takes animals that have been unable to stay in their pack for one reason or another. This is a common scenario, particularly where females are concerned. There are also pups that need to be found a new home, sometimes because the female cannot feed them or because they have been born to a low ranking female and risk being killed.

Gill: Can you tell us more about the Wolf Society of Great Britain and what happens there?

Sue: I started the Wolf Society way back in 1985 when interest in the wolf was very low, least-ways very few people openly admired the wolf. As soon as we started advertising the Society, lots of people came out of the woodwork! A few years ago it was re-launched, after a sticky patch, by Richard Morley who has done an excellent job. The WSGB now actively campaigns and raises funds for conservation and research projects primarily in Europe. They even run trips out to places like Slovakia where you can get involved with wolf conservation.

Gill: You were saying in an earlier answer that if a wolf cub is born to a low ranking female it risks getting killed, why is this?

Sue: In most cases there is only one breeding female in a pack and this is normally although not exclusively the alpha female. However, there are occasions when lower ranking females get pregnant since the males will attempt to mate with any female in estrus. This is usually discouraged by the alpha female who is extremely aggressive to the other females during this period and effectively suppresses their receptivity to the males. In the wild, lower ranking females often disperse at this time but of course in captivity this cannot happen. In the event of a second litter being born the pups are often killed by the alpha female and the unfortunate mother may then be roped into caring for the alpha females pups.

Gill: We practice ignoring unwanted behaviour nowadays, rather than corrections or punishment.  Do high ranking wolves correct others in the pack?

Sue: High ranking wolves do correct others and are very good at highly ritualised aggressive encounters. However, they are also masters at ignoring attempts by lower ranking wolves to get their attention. I think the problems that dog owners encounter is that they do not realise the sort of behaviour that a wolf will discipline another for. There is an awful lot of emphasis on doing things with dogs that are essentially meaningless within a wolf pack. For example, going through doorways. No high ranking wolf is going to insist on being first through a narrow gap. It simply is not important enough to provoke a confrontation over. Even the good old business of who eats first is quite different than most of the doggy people think. Unless there is a real shortage of food such as may happen in the wild, the alpha pair do not always eat first. Usually whoever is the hungriest eats first and unless there is good cause, wolves do not put themselves in a position where they may get injured. Far and away the most significant behavioural characteristics that correlate with high rank are great dignity and reserve, and an increase in territorial aggression.

Gill: Do you see a particular breed of dog that most closely resembles the wolf in behaviour?

Sue: I see wolf like behaviours in all sorts of dogs but I suppose that I would have to be honest and say that the northern sled dogs seem to resemble the wolf more closely than most. This shows up particularly in their vocal patterns, hunting behaviours and social behaviours. Research at Southampton University also found that Huskies showed the same social behaviour patterns as the wolf and that this was rather more attenuated in the other breeds that they looked at. Make no mistake though, Huskies and Malamutes are not wolves.

Gill: Do you have a favourite book or video on wolf behaviour and if so what it the title and author please?

Sue: Oooh! that’s a difficult one as I have so many favourites. I still think that Erik Zimen’s book, “The Wolf, his place in the natural world” is the best value in terms of the factual content and readability even though it is pretty old now. As for video’s the sheer beauty of the Ellesmere island arctic wolves is hard to beat.

Gill: Some people seem to like the idea of having a Hybrid, can you explain exactly what a Hybrid is

Sue: A Hybrid is any dog which has the recent addition of wolf blood.

Gill: Is it a good idea to have a Hybrid as a pet?

Sue: Wolf – dog crosses are incredibly variable in both appearance and behaviour due to the amount of wolf, how many generations they are away form the pure wolf and of course the breeds of dog used in the cross. Even the subspecies of wolf may make a difference. In general, since pure wolves definitely DO NOT make good pets, many Hybrids will fall into this category. It is of course pretty difficult to tell what a puppy will turn out like.

Gill: Could you experience different problems with a hybrid?

Sue: The problems that are experienced by people who attempt to keep pure wolves as pets may all turn up in a Hybrid. These include highly exploratory behaviour such as dissecting your furniture, escaping from all but the most “Fort Knox” like garden and inability to be house trained are just some. Add to this the fact that wolves frequently challenge for dominance upon maturity, are constantly testing their handlers for weakness, and will readily bite people who don’t follow the wolf rules. Falling foul of wolf law is inevitable if you attempt to keep them in a house since sooner or later there will be a confrontation over something.

Gill: What is the most acceptable breed of dog to mix with a wolf?

Sue: Since I don’t really agree with people breeding Hybrids for pets it is hard to say that any breed is acceptable. The most commonly used breeds are German Shepherds, Huskies and Malamutes but just about everything has been tried.

Gill: Is it legal to own a Hybrid?

Sue: It is definitely illegal to keep a first generation wolf – dog cross in this country (UK) without a Dangerous Wild Animal licence. Other crosses may or may not be legal. Suffice it to say that I have been involved in a number of court cases where it has been argued, in some cases successfully, that any amount of wolf in a dog means that it is subject to the Dangerous Wild Animal Act.

Gill: What would your advise be to someone that wanted to get a hybrid?

Sue: My advice would be surprisingly simple if that person was a resident of the UK. To the best of my knowledge there are virtually NO genuine Hybrids in the UK. There are vast numbers of animals out there that are being sold as Hybrids, often with no end of bits of paper to supposedly prove wolf ancestry. These animals probably have either no recent wolf in them or it is so far back and so dilute that it is no longer evident in their appearance and behaviour. I have been involved in this for 15 yrs and seen a fair number of dogs in that time. They are almost never what the owner thinks they are. All the characteristics that the owner thinks indicate wolf ancestry are simply from the Husky or Malamute side, such as howling, slant eyes, very intense social and hunting behaviours, thick grey coat etc. People are totally brilliant at convincing themselves that their dog is just like a wolf. Sadly the truth always seems to take second place.

Gill: On behalf of everyone we would like to thank you very much for taking the time to do this interview.