"I'm usually inside," he said, days after two were on the loose for about two-and-a-half hours. "They're outside. I never know they're out until I get a phone call" and then take a count.
Most of the time and "thankfully," he said, a caller has confused his wolf-dogs with other large dogs, such as Huskies, or coyotes.
On Saturday he did what he always does when any of the hybrids are loose; he walked his property to learn where they got out and plug the hole. "I don't go looking for them," Zager said, because a search isn't likely to yield fruitful results.
These are shy and quick-footed animals. They're not leash-trained.
Preventing any more of his pets from escaping is Zager's top priority. On Saturday he found that a piece of fencing added to the bottom of his property-encircling 8-foot fence, to account for a drop in ground level in a stream, had rusted and broken free.
A quick repair, while keeping the rest of the pack inside the fence, prevents the escapees from returning to their Spring Garden Road home.
wolfdog.jpgHolland Township resident Cliff Zager in 2015 has 12 wolf-dog hybrids living on his 9-acre property, and two standard dogs. (Rick Epstein file photo | Hunterdon County Democrat)
They always do, said Zager, because of the wolf in them: "It's instinctual," the drive to "return to the pack."
He relies on that pack to alert him to the return of loose pets. Over the weekend he saw his animals "race to the fence. I ran outside; I was looking for" the two loose dogs and didn't see them.
Just as suddenly, the 10 still-fenced wolf-dogs "ran to the other side of the property." Zager followed and this time saw his other two pets.
The pack is fed a raw diet, mostly meat. He changed feeding times to evenings after neighbors complained that the leftovers were drawing large numbers of vultures to the neighborhood.
Zager also keeps cans of dog food on hand, however, using them to to lead the escapees to a gate and back on his property.
Mayor Ray Krov said this week that the township hadn't received any reports of problems caused by the loose wolf-dogs. He wasn't in office at the time, but remembered that neighbors complained about a spate of escapes, and a dead neighborhood cat, that led to a 2009 proposal to ban wolf-dogs in the township. It never passed.
Zager called wolf-dogs "very interesting" and "very curious" animals. "They have to do their exploring, then it's time to come back to the pack. They can get into squabbles, but they have a very strong sense of family."
He said he has a "very deep connection to them," but doesn't cross the line to referring to his 14 dogs — two aren't hybrids — as "children."
"They're my non-human family," said a man with no wife or children.
He works from his home, running a dog-walking business in New York City. He owned and looked after dogs for many years. When a favorite Siberian Husky-German Shepherd dog died, he wanted "an animal that looked like her" and turned to a "low-content wolf-dog breeder."
Such hybrids favor the "dog" part of their heritage. Zager intended to buy one, but took two after a litter-mate's adoption fell through.
"I had a bunch of dogs and they were older," he said.
Nearly 10 years ago he moved to Holland Township from an apartment, inspiring him to "take the next step up" and adopt more wolf-dogs. "I had a lot of dog experience, 'I thought I really will be able to work with'" the hybrids.
He did his research, learning that an 8-foot fence was required, as well as a dig guard underneath.
He admits to mistakes, one being the decision to fence the entire property, which put the fence alongside hedge rows. When trees fall or large branches break, the fence is compromised.
Another was a rookie dog-owner error — forgetting that those "small, so cute and friendly" easily managed puppies would grow large.
Expanding beyond low-content hybrids, he bought two puppies, then kept going. While he tried to create a "human bond" with each of the "normally shy" wolf-dogs, he said he has had varying degrees of success.
Some of the wolf-dogs will "wash" his face with their tongues, he said, and all will eat from his hand and follow him. They all know their names and respond, even if they don't obey.
Zager said he failed to leash-train the hybrids, which he now regrets, and said three don't seek human contact.
A mobile veterinarian comes to his property when needed and to provide routine care.
He does not breed the wolf-dogs.
"I've made mistakes," he said again, but feels strongly that he "made the commitment" to care for the hybrids "for the length of their lives." They have a life-span similar to that of large dogs, and Zager's pack ranges in age from 5 to 12.
When one or more of his pets escapes, he said, "It's very stressful for me. I do a little quick praying that they'll return" safely, and without causing harm to anything.
He doesn't encourage people who denigrate neighbors who fear a wolf-dog escape. "I'm worried about my family and they're worried about their families. I'm not uncaring, I'm just trying to take care of my situation."
Further, he said, "I can put myself in their shoes." The wolf-dogs "should not be getting out."
(NJ.com - March 31, 2015)
- New Jersey: Neighbors Demand Action After Cliff Zager's Wolf-Hybrid Dogs Escape Again
- New Jersey: Cliff Zager's wolf hybrid attacked and killed a cat; fourth time his hybrids have been loose
- New Jersey: Holland Township decides against wolf hybrid ban, don't care that your pets are being mauled to death