A Wolf in the Classroom
© Keith Fialcowitz
Two alums share the challenges and rewards of living with a wolf
by Marion Harmon
In Montana, wolf is a four-letter word that can evoke fear and
loathing or adoration and awe, says CSU, Chico alum Bruce Weide.
And he ought to know -- he lives with one. For the past 12 years,
Weide and his wife, Pat Tucker, have lived and worked with Koani,
a 100-pound gray wolf.
Weide (B.A., Geography, '78) and Tucker (B.S., Nursing, '79) run
the Wild Sentry program, which educates children and adults about
wolves while emphasizing the wolf as a symbol of wildness. They
combine wolf biology, ecology, and storytelling -- and a live wolf
-- into a program that they've presented to more than 180,000 people,
mostly in rural schools and communities where wolf populations are
"I think people base so much of what they know about wolves
on stories," says Tucker. "There is no documentation
of a healthy, wild wolf killing a human in North America. And yet,
that is not the perception the public has about wolves."
In March, the couple received one of the nation's highest conservation
education honors, the National Wildlife Federation's National Conservation
The award "honors educators who use traditional or innovative
means to impart environmental awareness and understanding of the
natural world to students of all ages."
"People need to delve into issues and not rely on stories
they hear from others," says Weide. "While we can pass
legislation aimed at protecting wildlife and wildlands, we can't
legislate morality. Nothing truly changes without a change in attitude,
and such changes arise from education."
Shortly after the couple finished graduate school at the University
of Montana, Tucker, a wildlife biologist and a wolf expert, was
hired by the National Wildlife Federation to do public education
about wolves. Weide was making a documentary called The Wolf:
Real or Imagined? that looks at how stories about wolves shape
our attitudes and perceptions. Through her work, Tucker met a filmmaker
who was planning a television documentary about the gray wolf. The
filmmaker had obtained a litter of captive-born wolf pups. He asked
if Tucker and Weide would raise one of them to be an "ambassador
wolf" so that he could film a scene of a wolf in a classroom. He
said that when the film was over, he would take the animal back,
and she would be integrated into a public facility. But that didn't
The two-week-old wolf pup bonded with Tucker as she fed her from
a bottle and with Weide as he rubbed her fat belly with a warm,
wet washcloth to help her urinate and defecate, something the wolf
mother's warm, wet tongue would have done. For the next couple of
weeks, the couple fed the pup every four hours.
"By then, we were quite attached to this animal, and we
were forced into this decision about what do with her," says
Tucker. "You can't release captive wolves into the wild because
they're socialized to humans, and they're not pets. So we decided
that we would try to continue doing programs with her, and that
required setting up a nonprofit corporation so that we could fund
Konai poses on the east side of the Sierra.
Photo by Bruce Weide
Thus was born Wild Sentry: The Northern Rockies Ambassador Wolf
Program. They named the wolf pup Koani, which means "play"
in Blackfeet. At their home in western Montana, at the edge of the
Selway-Bitterroot wilderness, the couple prepared a one-acre, fenced
enclosure, complete with stream, aspens and pines, and a shelter
filled with sweet straw. The only thing missing was a companion
for Koani; in the wild, a wolf never spends a moment alone its first
six months. The couple found a six-month-old puppy at the animal
shelter and brought him home to meet Koani. The wolf pup, who licked
the dog all over in her excitement, also flopped onto her back to
display her respect for an older, wiser canine. The dog, named Indy,
sealed their relationship by growling softly and sniffing the wolf
A walk on the wild side
With their "pack" complete, Weide and Tucker began
the long process of socializing Koani. They spent hundreds of hours
taking her on walks and teaching her such seemingly mundane things
as going through a doorway.
Crossing streets was especially unnerving for Koani. Tucker points
out that wolves, much more than dogs, tend to have their sensory
systems "wide open." "I think we don't realize how
much we and dogs filter out when we're in crowded situations,"
|Two Sides to the Story
Wolves used to live all over North America. How
come there aren't very many of them in the lower 48 states
Wolves all over North America were
poisoned and trapped until they were exterminated from most
of the lower 48 states by the 1930s. This was done because
they killed livestock. One reason they did was the people
killed most of the native prey such as the bison and elk,
so wolves didn't have anything else to eat. People also killed
wolves because they believed the bad stories they'd heard
In Alberta and British Columbia,
Canada, where thousands of wolves live near cattle, they kill
less than one cow out of a thousand. While that isn't very
many cows, people who want wolves brought back to the places
where they once lived need to understand the concerns of individual
ranchers who lost cattle -- the animals that provide their
living -- to wolves. On the other hand, people who don't like
wolves need to understand that a majority of Americans (two-thirds)
want wolves to be brought back. We live in a democracy. Both
sides need to listen to and respect each other's opinions
and work toward solutions.
From the children's book There's a Wolf
in the Classroom! by Bruce Weide and Pat Tucker (Carolrhoda
While part of this training was "by the seat of their pants,"
the couple also consulted with others who had worked with captive
wolves. "I don't think Bruce and I are special people, but
we are willing to learn," says Tucker. "We were willing
to, for better or for worse, change our lives to accommodate this
Taking on the responsibility has definitely changed the direction
of the couple's life. Tucker cut short her career with the National
Wildlife Federation, as did Weide his career making documentaries.
The couple, who haven't been able to take a vacation together in
12 years, take Koani on walks at dawn and dusk for at least an hour
and a half. In western Montana's extreme temperatures, this can
be a miserable experience. As Koani grew, Weide and Tucker invented
games like peekaboo with a blanket and made toys like a teeter-totter
to keep her occupied. Without the walks and games, Koani would have
been bored and paced in her pen or tried to escape, says Weide.
As Koani grew into the 100-pound wolf she is today, being ever
vigilant has become second nature to the couple. While on a winter
program tour at Richardson Redwood State Park north of San Francisco,
the couple and some friends took Koani on a walk.
"As we came down out of the hills and closer to where all
the people were camping, I said, 'Okay, Pat, about 50 yards there
on the left, there are a couple of kids,' and she said, 'About 100
yards down there on the right, there's somebody with a dog,'"
says Weide. "Then one friend said, 'Wow, now I get it. You
guys aren't ever relaxed when you're doing this.'"
A wolf's tale
When Koani was ready, Weide and Tucker took her on her first "teaching
engagement" to a class of fourth graders in a small Montana
town. Koani and Indy waited in the van while Tucker explained to
the class how wolves live together, what they eat, how pups are
raised, and what they need to survive. Weide then told the tale
of "Little Red Riding Hood" and how the real lesson
is not about avoiding wolves that dress in nightgowns but about
self-discipline and doing what parents tell you to do.
Then, as Weide went to get Koani, Tucker prepped the students
by asking them to be quiet and still, and not to pet her. First
Indy entered in typical dog fashion, bounding into the room and
wagging his tail. Then Tucker asked the children to notice how Koani
entered: with calm dignity, her yellow eyes blazing with curiosity.
Koani circled the room with Weide in tow, and then jumped on a
table where everyone could see her better. Tucker asked the teacher
to come forward, and Koani licked the teacher's face, much to the
children's amusement. When the teacher put a few toys on the table,
Koani picked out a plastic doll and chewed on it, snipping off an
arm and the legs. "This is another reason that wolves don't
make good pets," said Tucker. "Wolves would treat your
new toys just like bones or an old stick." Tucker and Weide
then answered questions and concluded the program. Koani's first
classroom visit had gone well, much to the couple's relief.
Wild Sentry presents about 150 programs to more than 20,000 people
a year. While school programs are their main focus, they've also
spoken at prestigious venues such as the Smithsonian Institution's
National Museum of Natural History and the California Academy of
Sciences. In addition to publishing monthly newsletters, their books
include There's a Wolf in the Classroom! and Tales
of Two Canines.
Their Web site, www.wildsentry.org,
includes "firsthand accounts" from Koani and Indy. Weide
often uses Koani and Indy's voices to explain wolf behavior and
relay their adventures, such as a mock interview in the June 2003
Wild Sentry newsletter with the "Bioregional Association
of Retired Canids (BARC)" about Koani's eventual retirement:
BARC: Can you talk about some of your goals?
Koani: Nap, lay in the sun, nap, lay in the shade, think,
look, smell, nap, kill the neighborhood dogs, nap, get my belly
rubbed, lay in the sun, listen, kill a turkey.
Although Koani has never killed a dog or hurt a child, Tucker
and Weide emphasize that instinct could lead her to do so. "Wolves
are a very different species," says Tucker. "It doesn't
mean they're stupid. They just have different ways of thinking."
Their program stresses that having wolves and wolf-hybrids in
captivity can be dangerous. "Because most people are not willing
to make the sacrifices that are needed, wolves and wolf-hybrids
are stuck in pens or on chains," says Tucker. "They
are very aggressive around strange dogs, will kill cats, and are
potentially dangerous around kids."
While talking with children and showing them films about wolves
helps educate them, Weide and Tucker find that bringing a live wolf
into the classroom has served to hit home with their message. The
children see that the wolf isn't going to lunge at them and kill
them, but they also learn that the wolf must be respected.
Wild Sentry also gives presentations to adults, including public
programs for parents whose children have participated in the school
programs. The crew are often met by angry, hostile crowds, some
waving signs like "The Wolf Is the Saddam Hussein of the Natural
World: Don't Let Saddam into Montana." During one such program,
a 12-year-old girl raised her hand and said: "There are adults
who will never learn anything. But we kids can learn for ourselves
about wolves. We can make up our own minds."
Concludes Tucker: "If a picture is worth a thousand words,
then the presence of a living wolf is worth a thousand pictures."