Wolves in the den

County’s confusing policy could mean end for wolf-hybrid rescue

Sam Blake of Never Cry Wolf Rescue & Adoptions hangs out with one of his wolf hybrids, a rescued dog-wolf mix that Sacramento County regulates as an “exotic animal.”

Sam Blake of Never Cry Wolf Rescue & Adoptions hangs out with one of his wolf hybrids, a rescued dog-wolf mix that Sacramento County regulates as an “exotic animal.”

Photo By Larry Dalton

For a decade, Sam Blake has shared his 1.3 acres of land with as many as 10 wolf hybrids, big rangy-looking creatures that are part dog, part wolf, long-legged and powerful. Now, after arguing with county agencies over the number of animals housed on his property, Blake is obligated to keep the few that remain inside his approximately 1,450-square-foot house. The other animals have been sent to foster homes.

Blake’s final four animals—he calls them “ambassadors” because they accompany him to schools and other events—are shy but intimidating. When SN&R visited Blake’s home, which is covered in American Indian artwork, the tallest animal laid his chin on the glass-topped dining table and stared. Others lowered their heads but pushed their noses forward for a sniff. One finally relaxed enough to sack out on the couch, long limbs stretched out into the center of the room.

In the 1980s, wolf hybrids became somewhat popular as pets. They were exotic-looking, free-spirited animals, and the wolf was admired, especially among American Indians, for its loyalty to the pack. People since have discovered that hybrids are often much more labor-intensive than dogs.

Though breeding between wolves and dogs can happen in the wild, most hybrids are deliberately bred using huskies or German shepherds. Though full-blooded wolves are hard to find in California, they can be purchased out of state, according to Blake.

Since 1994, according to his own timeline, Blake’s organization, Never Cry Wolf Rescue & Adoptions, has been rescuing wolf hybrids, training potential hybrid owners on the animals’ special needs for attention and space, and providing a haven for animals that otherwise might be abandoned in the wild, where they’re unlikely to survive. When hybrids are surrendered to shelters or to Blake personally, he evaluates the animals for sociability, makes sure they get their shots and then houses them while he looks for new homes.

This summer, the county found that Blake’s operation violated zoning codes for his somewhat rural neighborhood. Blake needs to raise thousands of dollars to apply for a “conditional use permit,” which he has no guarantee he’ll receive. Blake plans to appeal his zoning citation in front of the Sacramento County Board of Supervisors, since the county has been granting him permission to run a rescue organization for a decade. If he can’t convince the board to let him continue to operate at his current location, it’s likely that Blake will have to leave his neighborhood or shut down altogether.

Blake has obtained a wild-animal permit from Sacramento County annually since he began his operation with two hybrids in 1994. In 2004, he said, the county granted him a permit to house 10 wolf hybrids at a time. The animals lived in a series of gated runs and rested under umbrellas and misters in the heat.

The conflict began this spring when one of Blake’s neighbors complained to the county about the number of animals at Blake’s residence, which sits at the end of a cul-de-sac. The animals were loud, they were smelly, and they interfered with his neighbors’ peace and quiet. Animal-control inspectors showed up to investigate, “counted noses,” Blake explained, and decided he was compliant. But that was just the first of many visits. Soon, zoning and planning officials, building inspectors, environmental specialists and others were looking over his vehicles, his home, his carport and his outdoor shelters.

Inspectors soon realized that the county had issued permits for years in spite of consistent zoning violations. As Sacramento County Supervisor Roger Dickinson explained, this was a great example of people—in this case, Sacramento County Animal Care and Regulation (SCACR)—focusing on their mission without considering other county requirements.

This spring, Blake received a letter citing seven violations.

Operating without a business permit is violation No. 1. Blake has applied for a license, but it’s being held up by the other zoning issues.

The letter warned that “keeping wild animals is not a use permitted” on Blake’s property. As a temporary fix, Blake has moved his final “ambassadors” indoors.

Blake also has been cited for the “operation of a kennel without the issuance of a conditional use permit.” This is the issue Blake fears will force him out of business.

The application fee for the permit costs more than $7,000, and there’s no guarantee. County officials, said Blake, told him that even a single complaint against him could lead to the county denying his permit. Blake also claims that the organization doesn’t have the money to apply.

Throughout the summer, Blake and his attorneys have been in negotiations with zoning officials, trying to clarify exactly which codes apply to the hybrids and exactly what it would take for the rescue operation to continue into the future. Blake feels his options are limited. He can either risk applying for the conditional-use permit, move his operation to another county or shut the operation down altogether. His only hope of overriding the violations lies with the Sacramento County Board of Supervisors.

“It’s not a question of him being shut down,” Dickinson told SN&R, “but of whether he’s interested in operating this kind of service in an area of the county appropriate to this activity.”

Blake said his organization placed 44 wolf hybrids into new homes in 2004. This year, the organization has been hampered by its negotiations with the county. Approximately 20 animals have been placed.

Trish Green, animal-services director for the Sacramento Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (SPCA), estimated that her organization had only taken in perhaps four actual wolf hybrids within the last five years. Each of them was evaluated by Blake and sent to his rescue center for adoption.

What would happen to abandoned hybrids if Blake did have to shut down his operation? “We don’t put hybrids up for adoption,” said Green. “They would be euthanized.”

While awaiting his appeal, Blake has continued to look for a new location outside Sacramento County. So far, he said, he’s not been able to find an affordable piece of property.

Some of Blake’s supporters recently tried to intervene on his behalf, calling animal-control officers anonymously and questioning how the county plans to handle wolf hybrids in the future. Rumors soon spread that the county’s concerns over Never Cry Wolf would lead to a campaign against wolf hybrids as pets in Sacramento County. Some fear that the county plans to stop issuing permits, begin seizing animals and eventually destroy them.

In conversations with SCACR Field Supervisor David Dickinson and Director Pat Claerbout, both officials insisted that there is no plan to seize hybrids from owners and destroy them. “There has never, ever been any discussion of taking animals,” said Claerbout. Even in Blake’s case, she added, if he no longer can operate at his current location, he’ll be given time to find new homes for his remaining animals.

However, the county has put a hold on issuing any new permits for wolf hybrids while it considers the case of Never Cry Wolf. In 2005, the county has issued permits for only nine wolf hybrids besides Blake’s. “At this point,” said Claerbout, “everything’s on hold. We’re not speculating on what will happen.”