Film Review: True Wolf

<i>True Wolf</i> is ostensibly about a Montana couple&#8217;s life with their adopted wolf, but the documentary&#8217;s lack of cohesiveness fails to connect us to either the exigencies of that existence, or to the wolf.

Millions of Americans flock to Yellowstone each year, not for the geysers which were the reason for the establishment of that national park, but for the wildlife—grizzly bears, the ubiquitous bison, and half a dozen species of ungulates, including elk and pronghorn. Of all the animals there, none excites visitors more than the wolves, even when they can only be spied at a great distance. While many vacationers are aware of the controversy over the re-introduction of wolves to that area, few know that on the national park’s western border, in Montana and Idaho, thousands of people carry hunting licenses to kill those wolves. True Wolf touches on that battle between environmentalists and ranchers in cheesy reenactments, yet its stated purpose is to celebrate the life of an unusual “ambassador wolf” named Koani. She once lived in Montana.

Pat Tucker, a wildlife biologist, was asked to raise a wolf pup for an educational documentary, with the understanding that the mature wolf would afterward revert to the care of the filmmakers. When they abrogated that responsibility, Tucker and her husband Bruce Weide, realizing that the only other choice was to euthanize Koani, adopted the wolf, and for the next 16 years learned how to live with her. During that time, Koani traveled across the U.S. as the star of Tucker’s wolf education workshops. Tucker and Weide made alterations to their Montana home to accommodate Koani, and adopted a shelter dog so that the “pack” would have at least one other canid member. The couple also walked five miles a day with the wolf, realizing that this would prevent her from developing the nervous habits of other wild creatures kept in captivity.

Still haunted by memories of Koani’s rather restricted existence—koan is a Zen Buddhist term for an instructive paradox—Tucker and Weide discuss wolves as pets, a commitment that far exceeds any demanded by a family dog. They also mull over arguments for and against protecting wild wolves in the West, deciding unequivocally that Montana must make room for them. There are scenes from Tucker’s wolf education sessions with school groups, although they are too brief to illustrate how children, some presumably living in ranching families, reacted to Koani. An “ambassador wolf” appears to be the basis for an engaging story, especially since the couple carefully documented Koani’s life in photos and on film, yet True Wolf remains unfocused throughout, and driven mostly by Weide’s self-aggrandizement, obvious from the first frame of the documentary.

Interviews with Koani’s vet and a local game warden lighten the weighty, pedagogical tone of the documentary, but in the end nothing overcomes its amateur production. An introductory segment on hunting and a rather bizarre burial sequence at the end make the movie inappropriate for children. In rare moments, when True Wolf allows a lingering glimpse of Koani, or when the documentary details the challenges of living with her, it captures the viewer’s imagination. One example is the scene in which Tucker tries to shove the wolf off a sofa. Brimming with humor and familiarity, and the opportunity to endear us to the odd heartland couple’s unusual cohabitation with a wolf, it is instead used by the filmmakers as an object lesson about the differences between wolves and dogs. Several hundred-thousand wolf-dog mixed breeds live in American homes, and their human “packs” would undoubtedly be interested in the wildlife biologist’s solution for getting Koani to relinquish the couch.