Team 12 investigation finds animal rescue for wolf-dog hybrids did not feed animals every day
A Team 12 investigation finds a New Jersey rescue for wolf-dog hybrids intentionally violates the Animal Welfare Act by not feeding animals every day. Several insiders say staff members who disagree with the group’s president risk retaliation. And three former employees recently sued the farm and its president, alleging wrongful termination and other issues.
Keith VanderBrooke says he was excited to work at Howling Woods Farm in Jackson. But he says it didn’t take him long to realize something was wrong.
“We started to see some very concerning health problems,” he says. “Animals looking emaciated.”
VanderBrooke isn’t alone. Team 12 spoke to other insiders who corroborate his story but asked to remain anonymous for fear of retaliation. “People come to Howling Woods Farm thinking that it's this amazing place,” one says. “But what people don't understand is what really goes on when they're not around.”
Internal messages show the farm’s president, Michael Hodanish, directs the staff to only feed the wolf-dogs every other day, and sometimes not at all for days in a row.
After Jackson police came to Howling Woods in February to investigate possible animal cruelty, Hodanish told the employee Facebook group that unless the whistleblower came forward, he might keep the farm “closed during the week indefinitely.” Hodanish told the staff that police knew details “only the people in this group would be aware of,” including “that I wasn’t feeding the animals every day.”
VanderBrooke admitted that he and a former employee had called police and the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which licenses Howling Woods, and that Hodanish fired him. VanderBrooke and two other former employees are now suing Hodanish and Howling Woods Farm.
Feeding animals daily isn’t optional. Under USDA rules, dogs, including hybrids, must be fed “at least once a day,” unless otherwise required for veterinary care.
Team 12 tried to schedule an interview with Hodanish, but he canceled or failed to keep several appointments. When News 12’s Senior Investigative Reporter Walt Kane caught up with him at his home, Hodanish defended his policy, insisting “if fed every other day, [wolf-dogs] stay much healthier.”
Kane asked about multiple Facebook posts in which Hodanish had instructed staff not to feed animals for “the rest of the week.” Hodanish said that was because “a couple of them were getting overweight.”
“All of the animals on the farm were obese?” Kane asked.
“No, no, not all of them,” Hodanish admitted. He did not explain why he ordered all animals on the farm to go unfed for days if only “a couple” were overweight.
Hodanish also provided records he said would prove the animals maintain their weight year-round, but when Team 12 examined them, they showed the animals sometimes experienced significant fluctuation. In May 2020, for example, the records show nearly half the farm’s wolf-dogs lost 8 pounds or more.
Hodanish also insists USDA inspectors are “well aware of our feeding schedule.” Team 12 asked the USDA if the agency knew Hodanish was breaking the rules. Spokesman Andre Bell would only say: “Our inspectors review what is being fed to a facility’s animals at the time of inspection.”
“Anyone with one of these USDA licenses should not be able to have some personal theory as to why the rules don't apply to them,” says John Goodwin of the Humane Society of the United States, which says the USDA often falls short in enforcing the Animal Welfare Act.
Team 12 dug into USDA data and found that under the Trump administration, enforcement of the Animal Welfare Act plummeted to an all-time low. In 2016, the USDA brought 239 cases and issued 192 warnings. In 2019, the agency brought just 17 cases and issued only two warnings.
In February, workers returned to Howling Woods after Hodanish closed the farm for a week. They found animals they say looked very thin, some digging through the garbage. Gates were left wide open, and the animals’ water bowls water were frozen solid.
“That’s one of the reasons we come back,” an insider says. “Because they rely on us to help them. Because how else are they going to survive?”