Troopers test for wolf DNA at Valley tourist business

Hybrids linked operation may be involved in attacks on people

June 16, 2011 

PALMER -- Alaska Wildlife Troopers served a search warrant Thursday on Wolf Country USA, testing the DNA of dozens of suspected wolves or wolf hybrids.

Troopers say the roadside attraction, north of Palmer, recently billed itself online as home of "the largest wolfpack" in the state, even though it's illegal to possess wolves in Alaska without a state permit. The business holds no such permit, officials say.

Dog-wolf hybrids are illegal as pets under any circumstances.

Troopers say they also are investigating reports of attacks on kids and pets by wolf hybrids thought to have been born at Wolf Country USA.

Werner Schuster, 80, who owns the gift shop and animal enclosure with his wife, said he hasn't broken any laws.

For more than seven hours, the investigators seized documents, pictures and two or three computers, Schuster said. They also tranquilized his animals, swabbed the insides of their mouths to collect DNA and implanted the animals with microchips, he said.

"I can't see any rhyme or reason. It's just idiotic," Schuster said. "They're going to put me out of business."

DOG OR WOLF?

In particular, authorities were looking for evidence of the possession and sale of wolves and wolf hybrids as well as evidence of game meat being used as animal food, the search warrant said.

"The main reason we're here is it's a public safety issue," said trooper Lt. Bernard Chastain. "One case we had recently is we had an 8-year-old boy bit in the face, and that was a wolf hybrid."

One woman told troopers she paid the Schusters $500 for what she believed to be a purebred timber wolf, according to a trooper affidavit. Genetic testing showed the animal, which bit a person earlier this year in Chugiak, was part wolf, troopers said.

Fish and Game officials say wolf hybrids can be unpredictable and possibly more dangerous than their purebred cousins.

"In addition to having the prey drive and willingness to bite someone, they (might) lose their wariness of humans because of the dog genetics," said Fish and Game spokeswoman Cathie Harms.

Schuster said he hadn't heard the stories of hybrids attacking humans. "Just cause a wolf does something, they're going to blame all the other wolves?" he asked.

Nobody's been bitten at Wolf Country USA, Schuster said.

Out back, some of the animals were still drowsy from the testing. One, named Sir Lancelot, slept under a tree. Another, Sheeba, walked back and forth, chained to large metal pipe protruding from the ground.

"We've seen kids come up and feed 'em, kiss 'em," Schuster said. "I'm not saying they're all meek and gentle. Some of 'em I don't even go to, but that's their culture."

NEW DNA TEST

In an effort to eliminate wolf hybrids from Alaska, the Board of Game in 2002 expanded rules to make it illegal to own, breed, market or sell wolf hybrids. Existing hybrids could remain alive if their owners got them neutered or spayed, implanted with a microchip, licensed and vaccinated.

But all valid hybrid permits have since lapsed, Harms said.

If unregistered animals born after 2002 prove to be wolves or closely related, Wolf Country owners Werner and Gail Schuster could be breaking the law, said Chastain, the trooper lieutenant.

"That's the problem in this situation, because it's this year's puppies, this year's litter," Chastain said.

The state prohibition on wolf hybrids has historically been difficult to prosecute because authorities had no conclusive DNA test, troopers said.

A new saliva test recently became available, allowing for Thursday's testing, Chastain said.

There were about 40 animals being tested, Schuster said as he sat on a wooden picnic table in front of his store. That included about 30 adults and 10 pups, he said.

Schuster said he's "done the wolf thing" -- showing his animals to visitors -- about 25 years. All the animals are registered with the American Kennel Club as huskies, he said.

"There's no such thing as 100 percent wolf. It's what you call 'em that makes it illegal," he said.

When pressed, Schuster called the animals wolves, which is what he tells visitors, who, for $10, can "adopt" the animals for a week.

"Yeah, they're wolves. They're wolves," he said.

And the tests would likely come back saying as much, Schuster admitted.

"They'll just come and put 'em all down," he said. "Of course we're worried. Those are our babies."

THE INVESTIGATION

This isn't the first time authorities have visited Wolf Country USA. In 1991, troopers seized 540 marijuana plants found at Schuster's home, according to reports at the time. He was convicted of growing pot and stealing electricity from Matanuska Electric Association.

More recently, troopers say that three separate investigations into illegal possession of wolf hybrids in Anchorage and Mat-Su pointed authorities to Wolf Country USA as a source for the animals.

As early as December of 2010, troopers interviewed Ronald West, an Anchorage man accused of owning an illegal hybrid, the troopers affidavit said. The animal had escaped its restraints and killed a neighbor's dog, troopers said.

West told an investigator that he couldn't understand why he was being prosecuted for his animal when Wolf Country USA was home to dozens more -- some being used for breeding. Troopers looked up the business's website, finding a link advertising what appeared to be wolf puppies for sale, the affidavit says.

Another tip came the next month, when Anchorage-area Fish and Game biologist Jessy Coltrane told troopers of another wolf hybrid. The animal had bitten a person Jan. 8 in Chugiak, she said.

When investigators talked to one of the owners, the man said he'd bought the animal from Wolf Country USA, troopers said.

Troopers sent a blood sample of the animal to the Veterinary Genetics Laboratory at the University of California, Davis. It was part wolf, the tests concluded.

BAD FOR BUSINESS

YouTube videos posted in October 2009 by a visitor to Wolf Country USA show Schuster saying three of the animals appeared in the 2007 film "Into the Wild," the trooper affidavit said. In the clips, Schuster can be heard talking about selling animals to customers in Holland, Japan and Denver. The Denver buyers spent $30,000 building a 10-foot-high fence for their wolf, Schuster said, according to troopers.

Along with wolf-viewing, Wolf Country sells gifts like wooden clocks and totem poles, Schuster said Thursday as troopers searched his property.

The effort forced him to temporarily close, putting a damper on business, he said.

A man and a woman in a motor home pulled into the parking lot as Schuster talked. They walked toward the door next to a neon "Open" sign that was now unlit. The woman held a camera and wore a visor.

"We're closed," Schuster said, offering no other explanation as the couple left, glancing at the trooper vehicles parked in front.

A tour of Wolf Country USA uploaded to YouTube


Daily News reporter Kyle Hopkins contributed to this report.

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