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A Wolf in the Classroom

Photo:Weide and Tucker out for daily walk with Indy and Koani

© 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 slowly recovering.

"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 Achievement Award.

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."

Ambassador wolf

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 happen.

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 the program."

Photo: Koani poses on the east side of the Sierra

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 thoroughly.

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," says Tucker.

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 now?

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 about them.

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 Books, 1995).

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 animal."

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.

Respecting wildness

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."