Wolf dogs killed owner, autopsy determines

Wecht finds that woman was mauled

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Sandra L. Piovesan bled to death after being mauled by a pack of nine wolf dogs that she had raised as pets and was so devoted to that she once told a neighbor they "give me unqualified love."


Sandra L. Piovesan

Ms. Piovesan, 50, of Salem, was found Monday morning in a caged rectangular enclosure in her backyard, home for nine half-wolves, half-dogs that were later euthanized. The autopsy, performed by Dr. Cyril H. Wecht, found that the Westmoreland County woman suffered multiple soft tissue injuries.

The nine hybrid animals are among the thousands that are known, depending on who is talking, by some variation of the terms wolf dog or wolf hybrid.

Ms. Piovesan was not a member of the United States American Wolfdog Association, which purports to be the largest organization to register the animals.

"I live here in Washington (Pa.) and I never heard of her," said John Davis, vice president of the organization. He declined to say how many members belong to his organization, though he said there are five filing cabinets full of breeding records on dogs and puppies whose bloodlines go back at least four generations.

"We do not breed wolves to dogs. We breed American wolf dogs to American wolf dogs," Mr. Davis said. The breed got its start by mating wolves with dogs -- generally Alaskan malamutes, German shepherds and Siberian huskies.

The American Wolfdog Association seeks to keep track of the dogs that are bred and works to improve the breed, Mr. Davis said, by requiring obedience training and hip-testing of dogs that are registered. The association holds dog shows and events in which members compete.

"We raise dogs," Mr. Davis said. "All dogs have descended from wolves."

Dogs and wolves will breed, even without human intervention, because wolves and dogs are closely related genetically. Some say that wolves and dogs are basically the same animal.

In 1993 the Smithsonian Institution and the American Society of Mammologists, reclassified dogs from canis familiaris to canis lupis familiaris -- putting dogs under the same genetic umbrellas as the grey wolf.

Wolf dogs are just like any other breed of dog, said Mr. Davis. Attacks are rare, he said, "even less so than for many breeds. We don't need the headlines" when this kind of attack occurs, said Mr. Davis, who owned wolf dogs since the late 1980s.

They're called "wolf dog hybrids" in a report on the Web site of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Slightly more than 300 people were killed by 403 dogs in the period from 1979-96, the report says. Fifteen wolf dog hybrids were involved in fatal attacks. Number one at 118 deaths was "pit bull types" both purebred and cross-bred; second was Rottweilers with 67 killings, third was mixed breed and fourth was German shepherds. Wolf dog hybrids came in ninth.

Before her death, Ms. Piovesan was a caretaker, both by hobby and profession. She'd worked for five years at the Latrobe Regional Health and Rehabilitation Center, where she created programs -- bingo or arts and crafts -- for some 100 residents. She specialized in artwork, and encouraged residents to draw pictures or create dreamcatchers, a nod to her Native American heritage.

Often, Ms. Piovesan attended a local flea market and purchased gifts for the residents.

"She would bring them animated music boxes and organs -- things they could play with," said her supervisor, Connie Griswold. "We as an activity department don't have a lot of money to play with, but she would bring things for them."

Ms. Piovesan shared little about herself, though. She mentioned an interest in exotic animals, but Ms. Griswold knew nothing about the wolf-dogs until she heard about her death.

Aside from her animals, Ms. Piovesan lived alone. She'd lived in the same white house for many years -- maybe two decades, one longtime resident guessed -- but she separated from her husband and her daughter had grown up.

Neighbors said that Ms. Piovesan received visitors only rarely. Family members knew something was wrong when Ms. Piovesan failed to show up for a breakfast meeting they'd arranged for Monday morning.

A license from the Pennsylvania Game Commission is needed to own, breed and sell wolves and wolf-hybrids. Mrs. Piovesan did not have a license.

The game commission was aware of her operation, but she had bought state dog licenses for the animals.

"The difficulty is proving whether an animal is a dog or a wolf" or some mixture of the two, said Mel Schake, information and education officer at the game commission. There is no test that can determine that.

Ms. Piovesan also had two Rottweilers, that were not in with the wolf-dogs and were not bred with them, said Westmoreland County Humane Officer Elaine Gower. Those dogs are well-cared for and well-behaved. She said family members do not want the dogs, so Action for Animals will take them in and find new homes for them.

Ms. Piovesan treated her wolves like children, and said as much when neighbors asked about them.

The fenced area in her backyard is about the width of a three-lane road, running the length of her house. The area was divided into sections: one for the wolf-dogs, one for her pair of Rottweilers, another for wolf puppies, with whom she'd play and romp.

Ms. Piovesan provided the wolf-dogs with toys -- a replica igloo, balls, a plastic playhouse.

Ed Gieselman, owner of a interior design business across the street, asked her recently about her attachment to the animals. Ms. Piovesan said, in response, that "they give me unqualified love," Mr. Gieselman recalled.

She fed the animals road kill that sometimes caused the nearby neighborhood to smell. She'd recently asked Mr. Gieselman to help retrieve a deer carcass from Route 22, running parallel to Croft Road, where she lived. Together, they loaded the deer into Ms. Piovesan's truck and hauled it to her yard.

"She also had one wolf that lived in the house with her, Spirit," Mr. Gieselman said. "She'd raised Spirit from a puppy. And she kept that one in the house."

Neighbors had complained about Mrs. Piovesan's pets, mostly for making too much noise, and Officer Gower had investigated. She can file charges if animals are abused or neglected, and she never found any of those types of violations.

"The enclosure was big for dogs but in my opinion, small for wolves," Officer Gower said.

Officer Gower said she visited Ms. Piovesan's home about 10 times in the last 31/2years. Her home was decorated with Native American artwork, Officer Gower said.

"She was pretty much on guard with me, because she knew that I knew that this wasn't a great situation," Officer Gower said.

"She said she liked the [wolf-dogs] because they were pretty. Why she would want them as pets, that's beyond me."


Chico Harlan can be reached at aharlan@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1227. Linda Wilson Fuoco can be reached at lfuoco@post-gazette.com or 412-263-3064.


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