Paying the Price for Captivity Stress

People aren’t the only ones to pay a high price for their animals’ captivity stress…

By frustrating an animal’s urges–inhibiting its natural drives to disperse, hunt, and mate–physical confinement in the form of a pen or even a leash can be enough to trigger an emotional meltdown in some mature wolves and wolfdogs.

Sandra Piovesan, a wolfdog breeder who lived thirty miles east of Pittsburgh, hadn’t understood the needs of her animals, her role in the social “pack” structure, or the consequences of her animals’ severe confinement stress. She started with a single breeding pair and produced a litter of pups every year. Although she gave away or sold some of the puppies, she always kept a few animals from each litter. Some ten years later she owned eleven intact male and female wolfdogs, all living in a single 50’x100’ enclosure (about 1/3 acre).

Humane Officer Elaine Gower, who’d made frequent visits to Piovesan over a period of several years, became increasingly concerned as the number of animals in the enclosure grew. “They were stressed,” she told me. “The space was too small for that many animals.” When we spoke, Gower emphasized that she could not prove wanton and willful neglect. Except for being overcrowded, these animals, licensed as “mixed-breed dogs” to avoid hassles with law enforcement, were in decent physical shape. “I was on friendly terms with Sandy. I wanted to work with her and come up with a solution to the situation,” she said. Then some of the lower-ranking animals were badly injured and even killed by other pack members when they were attacked and couldn’t escape. (Many sanctuaries keep wolves in pairs rather than groups to avoid this kind of “mob” situation.)

Piovesan grew wary of entering the enclosure because a white female had become particularly territorial and aggressive, often circling behind her. Gower issued warnings to Piovesan for having filthy water in the kennels, and demanded that she seek veterinary care for wounded animals. She offered to spay and neuter the animals at no charge, but Piovesan declined, saying that the animals were living in a natural state, and to spay and neuter them would “disrupt the pack dynamic.” Gower found a sanctuary willing to take three of the wolfiest-looking puppies in order to ease the stress on the other animals in the enclosure, but Piovesan refused to give them up, telling Gower she was thinking about driving some of the animals to Minnesota to let them go. Gower told her such a move would be illegal and that the animals wouldn’t survive—they didn’t know how to hunt and wild wolves would likely kill them.

Over the years, some of the puppies that Sandra Piovesan sold or gave away (puppies from the white female) met with tragic ends. One pair acquired by a man who identified himself as Native American and went by the name “Lone Wolf,” didn’t have a fenced area or the necessary permits, and when the animals were caught killing sheep, animal control turned them over to the Pennsylvania Game Commission. When “Lone Wolf” was interviewed he said that as a Native American he had a right to own wolves without a permit: “It’s a spiritual thing.” But without a captive wolf permit, the Game Commission would not return the animals to him and quickly offloaded them to a woman who did have a permit. The woman attempted to breed her dog to the intact male, who subsequently killed the dog. The woman then shot the male and the female escaped. She traveled into a neighboring county where she was shot the following year as a “white coyote.”

Another pair of offspring from the white female went to a husband and wife who were starting a backyard zoo at their home. When the wolfdogs attacked the wife, the husband shot both animals.

Meanwhile, Piovesan’s white female grew increasingly stressed out and dangerous, and Piovesan confided to Gower that some of the other animals had also begun to circle behind her when she went inside the enclosure. Co-workers reported that Piovesan had come to work with her arm bandaged and admitted that she’d been attacked by one of her animals. Several months later Sandra Piovesan’s daughter Crystal found her mother’s mauled body inside the enclosure. Her femoral artery had been severed and she’d bled to death.

Sandra Piovesan wasn’t the only one to pay a high price. Authorities tranquilized the animals with dart guns and euthanized them. “They were beautiful animals,” Gower says. “I was just sick about it. I called several sanctuaries, but no one wanted them because we weren’t sure whether the animals were pure wolves.”

According to Pat Goodman, research associate at Indiana’s Wolf Park, captive female wolves are much less tolerant of other females than male wolves are of other males: “We have witnessed deadly aggression between [captive] female wolves since the seventies… I suspect that female pack members… have a naturally selected ‘incentive’ to disperse of which they are not conscious…”

At age 50 Piovesan’s life was cut short, and death became the only “freedom” her animals would ever know.

NOTE: Wolves aren’t the only animals to experience temperament changes and captivity stress as they mature. According to April Truitt, the executive director of the Primate Rescue Center in Lexington, Kentucky, once primates reach maturity, their behavior can become unpredictable. “An adult chimp has seven times the strength of a man…but even a 24-pound monkey has the reflexes and agility to take down a man,” Truitt remarked. “These animals have to be removed at birth from the mother, put in diapers, put on a bottle and sold before they start depreciating—which they do, quicker than a Cadillac… By the age of 3, maybe 5 or 7, they reach adolescence and their hormones are telling them to do anything but take commands from humans. They are interested in dominating whatever social group they find themselves in. If it’s a human home, they often go after children first, then teenagers, then mom, and by the time they get to dad, we usually get the call.”

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