Standing before 200 children at Bethesda's Stone Ridge School yesterday, holding a 100-pound Canadian timber wolf on a leash, John Harris and Scott Barry knew they had an uphill struggle ahead of them.

Barry and Harris are on a nationwide "Save the Timber Wolf" campaign, and they were at Stone Ridge, a private Catholic school for girls, to convince the students that the wolf is a noble animal not a vicious beast.

With the first question it became apparent how difficult their task was.

"What stories do you know about wolves" asked Barry.

"Little Red Riding Hood," said someone. "Peter and the Wolf . . . the Boy who cried Wolf . . . the Three

"Little Pigs"

"The wolf is probably the most misunderstood animal in history," lamented Barry later, noting that the wolf was villian in every story memntioned by the children.

Both Barry and Harris are well aware, they say, that their task involves changing an image handed down over centuries in folklore and literature.

As early as 500 B.C., Aesop used the image of a "wolf in sheep's clothing" to warn that appearances can deceive and 2,000 years later Shakespeare wrote. "He's mad that trusts in the tameness ofa wolf . . ."

Nevertheless, said Harris and Barry, they are determined to rally support for the cause of the timber wolf just as other groups have rallied in recent years behind whales and baby seals.

They were hoping for fertile ground in Montgomery County, where other environmental causes have caught on easily and where wolves have been extinct for years.

"Look," said Barry, "How many of you eat steak or hamburger?"

Almost every child in the room raised a hand.

"Well, your money or your daddy has to go down to the supermarket and buy it, and somebody has to kill a cow or a steer to get steak or hamburger for you."

"In the wilderness, they don't have supermarkets, so the wolves have to go out and kill caribou or elk so their children can eat. That's nature's way."

As Barry spoke, Harris led the wolf, named Slick, between rows of children seated in the school's auditorium. The children were encouraged to pat the animal, who was born and raised in captivity.

Harris said thousands of school children have petted his wolves without incident since he began running his program in schools some years ago. He made no reference to an incident almost three years ago when one of his wolves, named Rocky, bit a child in the face at a softball game in Teaneck. N.J., a game between news orgainzations staged to benefit the Fund for Animals.

The child. a 1-year-old girl, had stitches taken on the left side of her face and was reported in good condition a day after the incident, according to news reports at the time.

"We hope through education replace fear of wolves with respect," Barry said yesterday, adding that his group hopes the wolf will become a symbol of all endangered species and of America's threatened wilderness.

"The purpose of this is to educate children about wolves. How they live and how we can contribute to their remaining on earth," said Iris Colasante, a teacher at Stone Ridge. "We want our children to know about wolves as they really are, not as they're portrayed, vicious and bloodthirsty, with big teeth, always eating up grandmothers and little children."

The myth of the ferocious wolf, said Dr. Nichael Fox of the Humane Society of the United States, is a holdover from "the folklore of old Europe when we were competing with the wolf for space. We were destroying the wolves' deer and they were destroying our livestock."

Concluding their presentation at Stone Ridge yesterday, Harris and Barry drew a mixed response.

Nine-year-old Meghan McMurtrie said she no longer likes the story of Little Red Riding Hood because it is antiwolf.

But fourth grader Karen Simon still had some doubts about Slick, the Candian timber wolf that visited Stone Ridge.

"Does he eat people?" she asked.

"No," said Berry.