Dire wolves have gained immense popularity because of HBO's hit series "Game of Thrones," which started its final season this week. But many people still have no idea that these are extinct animals derived from our world, not the world of fantasy dreamed up by author George R. R. Martin.
Fans of the show have reportedly sought out huskies, which resemble the show's dire wolves, as pets. However, the dog-parents-to-be aren't ready for the responsibility of a husky, rescue groups say, and as a result, shelters have seen a dramatic increase in the number of the dogs being abandoned. In the San Francisco area, one husky rescue organization told SFGate.com that the animals arriving have "Game of Thrones"-related names, like Lady, Ghost, Nymeria, Grey Wind and Summer.
"It's really becoming a huge problem," Angelique Miller, president of Northern California Sled Dog Rescue, told SFGate. "These people, they watch these shows and think how cool these dogs are. People can't even tell the difference between a husky and a wolf because they're always asking us at adoption fairs if these dogs are wolves — and it's clearly a husky. They're just following the trend of what they think is cute."
While Miller's rescue has seen the number of abandoned huskies double in recent years, a British animal charity saw a 700 percent increase in 2014.
Stars from 'Thrones' speak up
"Game of Thrones" stars Peter Dinklage (Tyrion Lannister) and Jerome Flynn (Bronn) have released statements through People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) on the husky trend.
"Please, to all of Game of Thrones many wonderful fans, we understand that due to the direwolves huge popularity, many folks are going out and buying huskies," said Dinklage, an animal lover and longtime vegetarian.
"Not only does this hurt all the deserving homeless dogs waiting for a chance at a good home in shelters, but shelters are also reporting that many of these huskies are being abandoned — as often happens when dogs are bought on impulse, without understanding their needs. Please, please, if you're going to bring a dog into your family, make sure that you're prepared for such a tremendous responsibility and remember to always, ALWAYS, adopt from a shelter."
A present day relative of dire wolves
For an estimated 1.79 million years, dire wolves roamed North America — averaging 5 feet in length and weighing between 110 pounds to 175 pounds. They were roughly 25 percent larger than today's largest gray wolf, with a head that was broader, larger in size, and heavier. 10,000 years ago, along with mammals like mammoths and mastodons, the dire wolf went extinct — but at least one effort is underway to replicate what they may have looked like.
Since 1988, The Dire Wolf project has been working to create a domesticated large breed of dog that mimics the feral characteristics of its ancient cousin. The first litter crossed an Alaskan malamute with a German shepherd. Subsequent mixings gave rise to a new breed called the American Alsatian. You can see the dogs in action in the video above.
With the "Game of Thrones" craze has come immense worldwide interest in the breed, but organizers are quick to point out a few key differences.
"The series is a bit misleading in its interpretation of the Dire Wolf," the official project website states. "The wolves portrayed in the 'Game of Thrones' series do not resemble Dire Wolves and should not be confused with Dire Wolf size and build. Some of the most obvious features lacking in the wolves deemed to be Dire Wolves are that they possess thin muzzles, legs, and bodies. While this is indicative of the more fleet of foot Gray Wolf, it does not reflect the size and mass of the Dire Wolf build. The Dire Wolf had shorter, thicker legs as well as a larger head and broader muzzle."
Nevertheless, American Alsatians are in demand, with growing waiting lists for puppies costing from $1,000-$3,000. Wired's Rachel Edidin got close and personal with some young Alsatians and described them as "noticeably calm," adding that many end up as "companion or therapy dogs for owners with special needs."
Editor's note: This story has been updated since it was originally published in March 2013.