Hey, I've respected the work of Pack West Wolfdog Rescue for a while and am honestly a bit surprised to see that you're not going to be working with them directly anymore. Can you expand on the issues with the organization itself, which you referenced previously, that led you to this decision? Thanks!
I’m very hesitant to answer this question, but yeah, I can. I’ve been torn for a while about addressing this on the blog - I don’t want to undermine a growing organization, but I do think there are some things that, in the context of an organization I hadn’t personally worked with, I would feel that people should know. Since there are a couple of things that are serious enough that I’m no longer comfortable being involved with them until they’ve been addressed, I think they need to be talked about.
These issues were either not present or not readily apparent when I started working with them, but have occurred or become noticeable in the interim. It was not until recently that I put together the individual issues I was uncomfortable with into the larger picture that led me to choose to distance myself from them. I believe I’ve voiced my observations regarding all of these issues to Pack West either in person or by chat, so these are not unknown issues.
My concerns are based on personal observation of how the facility functions during the two week-long periods I have spent at their facility and my personal online communications with them during the period between visits. My feelings on why these issues are problems stem from over a decade as a dog trainer, a degree in behavioral science, and six years of intense study of, and participation in, exotic animal management and welfare.The below is true to my knowledge as of January, 2017 - I would love to hear that things have since changed, and would happily reassess my opinion based on that.
Pack West does not, to the best of my knowledge, have any liability waivers or training protocols for volunteers to complete before having access to the animals. This is very unusual for an exotic animal rescue allowing volunteers - a quick google makes it clear that most places require volunteers to sign liability forms and go through training processes to prove they understand the behavior of the animals and can interact with them appropriately. If Pack West is allowing people to have contact with animals who are potentially dangerous - and whose rabies vaccinations don’t protect them under federal law - I’d want to see them really think through what a volunteer program would entail and how they’d protect both the volunteers and their animals. I’d also want to see how those considerations would alter their practice of having their ambassador animals interact with the public without a signed waiver or muzzles on the animals. Accidents happen, and I worry their current practice would end in tragedy someday in the future.
Pack West does not, to the best of my knowledge, have either a professional behaviorist or anyone with professional animal training and management experience on staff or on retainer. As far as I am aware of, there is not anyone with a professional background in canid or domestic dog behavior involved with the intake of new rescues or with assessing the dynamics between cohoused animals. This also means that, when I was there, there was no established training protocol for managing the wolfdogs living on site, nor were there proactive management plans created to prepare for potential emergency handling needs. I believe this played a significant role in resource guarding and cabin fever escalating to the point of a fight between Cabal and Ivar while I was on site in January - as far as I know, they are no longer housed together as a result of the fight.
I am aware that for a new rescue professional oversight may be expensive and hard to access. I believe that, nevertheless, it should still be one of their highest priorities as it immediately impacts the welfare of their animals and the safety of their staff. To be truly comfortable engaging with them again, I would want to see the members of the facility gain personal academic or professional experience in animal behavior, management, and training if they can’t afford to hire an extant professional to consult regularly. From my first-hand experiences, this currently doesn’t seem to be a priority for them - I got the impression that hands-on experience with the specific animals was considered equally as relevant as any potential academic and professional background. I feel that rescues, as professional organizations, are obligated to go above and beyond that mythology.
Pack West does not, to the best of my knowledge, have any on-site housing for their rescue animals other than a single 750 square-foot (110 foot perimeter) outdoor enclosure. I did not observe the containment to be locked at any time during either of my visits, even when nobody was on the property, nor does it have secondary containment (which is vital when housing animals known for being escape artists) other than the surrounding yard, which has a low gate and a fence that was visibly compromised in multiple spots as of my last trip. To the best of my knowledge, this enclosure is the permanent home to two large adult male wolfdogs, and for the duration of my January visit additionally housed the resident GSD or another rescue wolfdog. As of that visit, the containment furniture was comprised of two dog houses, a tire, an above-ground pond, and an overhang - there was no indoor area for the animals to use to escape the weather, no waterproof substrate or manmade flooring that would give them an escape from moisture, and no alternate space in which the animals could get a break from each other if needed. The animals were allowed time in the larger yard on site when observed, but during my trip they still spent all of their nights and many daytime hours in the single containment. By contrast, the standards set by the Global Federation of Animal Sanctuaries (an organization considered on par with AZA for regulating rescue and sanctuary environments) for an appropriate enclosure type for multiple large canids require “a minimum of 5,000 sq. ft. (465 sq. m) for large canids housed as pairs or trios (…) and a minimum of two rooms or one indoor room and one shift yard per pair of compatible canids”.
Again, I understand that for a small rescue building more containment is expensive and hard to do. Pack West stated before they acquired Ivar (close to a year ago) that they were hoping to sell the property they are currently based on and relocate the rescue, and I think as such they have chosen to not build any new enclosures due to the resources that would be lost during the move. However, as rescue organizations take in unknown animals, I feel it’s crucial that they have multiple enclosures in which they can quarantine animals, do introductions, give residents breaks from each other, and allow incompatible animals to live separately. I don’t believe it’s responsible for a facility to not prioritize having the appropriate living quarters for the animals they take in at present, even if it means a loss of some resources down the line.
Pack West, to the best of my knowledge, has never had their facility inspected or been licensed by the USDA. I hope I’m wrong on this one, because USDA oversight is a federal requirement for any facility that exhibits animals to the public. While Pack West’s facility is not technically open to the public, they are not exempt from USDA regulation because they use their animals for photoshoots and music videos as well as promotional and fundraising campaigns for the organization. If this is true, it is a huge problem - it is the responsibility of a facility to apply for a license and be inspected before beginning to exhibit animals - and most importantly, it would mean that the facility has never been inspected to make sure that its setup is in accordance with the Animal Welfare Act. I understand that an organization that is trying move would probably prefer not to spend the money to get their current property in accordance with AWA regulations to only to sell it shortly after and start over, but federal animal welfare laws must be first priority.
I could understand a new organization struggling with maybe one of these issues, but when considered as a whole they don’t represent an ethos of animal management that I’m currently comfortable supporting - especially considering what appears to me to be avoidance of USDA oversight. I do believe in the value of what the organization is hoping to become - as places that do accurate education and outreach about wolfdogs and wolfy-looking dogs are rare - but before I’m willing to publicly support them again, these issues really need to be addressed.
I’m really scared to post this, because I know it may be interpreted as a betrayal of my previous friendly relationship with the facility, but it is the same due diligence I would give to any other facility when asked about why I would not personally support it.