The Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources has notified Rustic Retreat Deer Park owner Thomas Mueller that he must stop offering public petting encounters with his wolfdogs.
Mueller began operating Rustic Retreat Deer Park in 2020. He quickly imported four wolf-dog hybrids, commonly called wolfdogs, which he transported into Wisconsin illegally with no permits or Certificates of Veterinary Inspection, according to the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection.
Mueller offers paid petting encounters with a variety of animals at his roadside zoo including wolfdogs, deer, a bison, goats and sheep. He also operates an Airbnb, in which guests are given unfettered access to his animals.
Mueller began operating his roadside zoo without the federally required U.S. Department of Agriculture exhibitor’s license, and without the required DNR permits for exhibiting wolfdogs to the public. He also failed to obtain the required conditional use permit from his township.
In October 2021, the DNR fined Mueller $539.50 for failing to obtain permits for his wolfdogs. Mueller has since obtained the required DNR permits and he's obtained a USDA exhibitor's license. The Town of Russell has not issued a permit to Rustic Retreat Deer Park.
State of Wisconsin Statute NR 16.35(7) indicates that harmful animals, including wolves and wolf-dogs, are prohibited from being used in interactive sessions or exhibited outside their enclosure. DNR Administrative Warden Pete Dunn confirmed that Tom Mueller has been informed that future exhibition and interactivity between his wolfdog hybrids and the public, without a clear separation between the animals and public, would need to stop.
“The head of the Wisconsin DNR just called me and said they are getting complaints about my wolfdogs being used in human interactions,” Mueller posted on social media on January 21, 2022. “I was told to stop these interactions immediately!”
Despite acknowledging the wolfdog encounters that Mueller offers at Rustic Retreat Deer Park are a violation of state law, social media posts appear to indicate Mueller is continuing to offer public wolfdog interactions. On January 28, Mueller posted photos of three women from Plymouth interacting with his wolfdogs.
On January 29, Mueller posted a video of a campfire he was having with his wolfdogs and several members of the public. In a social media post, Mueller said he is now offering a new service: Campfire wolf encounters, in which adults can interact with the wolfdogs around a campfire, presumably while drinking alcohol, for $20 per person. On January 30, Mueller posted a video that showed at least 12 people participating in petting interactions with his wolfdogs.
“DNR contradicts itself so much concerning wolfdogs,” Mueller said. “It will never stand up in court.”
On January 31, the DNR cited Mueller for continuing to offer petting encounters with his wolfdogs at Rustic Retreat Deer Park. The DNR said they notified Mueller that each additional wolfdog encounter that he offers will result in an additional violation.