Georgina De Caigny was on her way to a career in engineering when Kuna changed her life.
Kuna is a dog. Not the kind of dog that fits in a purse or sits still preening for a dog-show. Almost the complete opposite. Kuna is a wolfdog: part domestic dog and part wild wolf. While still a student, De Caigny adopted Kuna and fell in love in a way that inspired her to drop her career aspirations (“There’s five years I’ll never get back,” she quips), to start one of Alberta’s most unique wildlife and tourism experiences, the Yamnuska Wolfdog Sanctuary.
De Caigny and her mom Andi Scheibenstock, a doctor in B.C., founded the Yamnuska Wolfdog Sanctuary after realizing that dogs like Kuna tend to be misunderstood, unique and difficult to handle in ways that sometimes, sadly, lead to abandonment. They started the sanctuary with the goal of caring for abandoned wolfdogs, dispelling myths about wolves and wolfdogs and educating people about responsible wolf-dog ownership.
Loving a wolfdog is a different experience than your run-of-the-mill crush on the Labradoodle next door. The Yamnuska pack is made up of rescue animals that are the result of intentional breeding rather than a wild animal breeding with a domestic one. De Caigny’s canines were given up by owners who realized that dealing with a wolfdog is nothing like dealing with the pets most of us are accustomed to. The higher the content of wolf in the animal, the more wolf-like its behaviour and appearance. Domestic dogs can be trained. Wolfdogs? Not so much.
“Dogs can be impulsive, but they are not really decision makers,” De Caigny says. “Wolfdogs, on the other hand, are constantly making decisions. They are problem-solving animals.” While many of the animals at the sanctuary are too wolf-like to be adopted out of the facility, others are, provided appropriate hosts can be found. That makes one of the sanctuary’s missions educating people about responsible wolfdog ownership.
The sanctuary occupies land in the foothills of the Rockies near Cochrane, Alberta, just west of Calgary. Four times a day, five days a week, De Caigny and her guides lead tours into the facility’s enclosure to meet, feed and photograph the wolfdogs. You can also opt for a self-guided tour along an interpretive walk around the enclosures where you can learn interesting facts about wolves and wolfdogs and explore at your own pace.
Each of the animals has a unique personality, influenced by their genetic makeup. Those with a higher concentration of wolf in their genes tend to be more wary of humans. Others are more personable, akin to a wilder German shepherd. All are beautiful. Some even have celebrity connections, such as Zeus, a white wolfdog related to Quigly, the famous wolf actor that plays the part of Ghost on the TV series Game of Thrones.
Seven days a week, from dawn to dusk, Georgina cares for the pack, expanding enclosures, putting pictures up on the sanctuary’s Facebook page and answering emails from shelters desperately looking for homes for wolfdogs. This is not the life she originally planned for herself, but Georgina’s passion for the welfare of these incredible animals has led her to believe it’s a job worth doing. Those of us who harbour a love of dogs are sure grateful she does.