Those who study wolves know that the animals are some of the world's great travelers. Wild wolf packs can cover as much as 500 square miles, and single wolves have been known to run more than 100 miles a day. Still, though, few have traveled as far, or in so much style, as Rami, the 6-year-old female gray wolf who stars in two shows Friday evening at the Upper Marlboro Community Center.
Rami lives a lot like an old-fashioned rock star; she wears a black coat (her own), she packs in the adoring crowds wherever she goes and she gets there in her own customized 1974 Greyhound coach, dubbed "Wolfhound" by her human highway companions. The center section of the bus includes secluded den areas and windowed lofts for Rami, and her meat and bedding take up much of the cargo bays below. although Rami hasn't been along for every trip the Wolfhound has taken, she has visited both coasts and just about everywhere in between. The wolf is the showpiece of hundreds of programs aimed at dispelling deep-seated and destructive myths.
These "ambassador wolf" shows are the project of Mission: Wolf, a refuge for 45 captive-born gray wolves and wolf-dog crosses near Silver Cliff, Colo. The refuge is set in unwired backcountry at 9,300 feet in the area of the Sangre de Cristo mountains. Mission: Wolf volunteers have worked since 1988 to provide a sustainable model of wolf-human cohabitation. They run educational programs and toil to expand their wolves' habitat. The need for help is always present, and interested parties are invited to bring a tent and stay as long as they would like. And always, the road beckons: several times each year Mission: Wolf hits the highway in response to a flood of requests from schools, government agencies, conservation organizations, museums and other groups.
Kent Weber, director of Mission: Wolf, and one of Friday's presenters, describes the show as a "life-changing experience" for many audience members. "People can read books, we can show them slides, we can talk to them," Weber says. "But the magic of the program happens when that wolf walks in and looks them in the eyes. They'll remember that wolf for the rest of their lives."
As Weber puts it, "The best reason for wolves living in cages is to teach people why they shouldn't." Much of the show is devoted to delineating the difference between wolves and domestic dogs, explaining why the latter makes for a terrific pet and the former doesn't. Weber and his co-workers know first-hand: Since its inception in 1988, the refuge has turned away more than 4,000 wolves or wolf-dog crosses, often to the frustration of intended donors, who have failed to understand the animal's need for space and its essentially wild nature.
When it comes time for Rami to make her entrance, the audience is coached on proper behavior around a wolf. Without revealing all of the show's secrets, let it be said that this is where Rami and rock stars differ greatly. If the wolf is to stay calm, the audience must do the same. Not a problem, usually; a few stares, a few sniffs, and she's acclimated to the watchers, Weber says, so much so that she might just sleep through the second half of the show.
"The wolf we have is very brave and unusual," he adds. "We're lucky to have one that can interact so peacefully with so many strangers."
Weber is assisted in the program by his stepson Tamas Brooks, who has been home-schooled in wolf care and lore at Mission: Wolf since he was 10. Brooks is especially valuable to the ambassador wolf shows--Rami "thinks Tamas is her brother," Weber says, and will allow herself to be handled by Brooks even in crowded and noisy situations. A third presenter, Pam Uihlein, is a wolf activist and educator from the University of Montana who finishes the show on a high note, literally, by teaching the finer techniques of howling to her audience. (Uihlein has the credentials: In 1992, she solicited one of the last wild wolves in Idaho to howl with her, an unusual feat among wolf researchers.)
The Upper Marlboro show is the last on Mission: Wolf's current 12-state, 9 1/2-week tour, and then it will be time to point Wolfhound back west and hope its transmission holds up for an additional 2,000 miles. Weber seems to speak for Rami as he contemplates the end of another barnstorming success.
"Sooner or later," he says, "the time always comes to tuck our tails, and head home before the snow falls."
Mission: Wolf's presentations are Friday at 6:30 and 8 p.m. at the Upper Marlboro Community Center, 5400 Race Track Rd., Upper Marlboro. Admission is $5. The program is recommended for ages 5 and older. For more information, call 301/297-4575.
CAPTION: "The magic of the program happens when that wolf walks in and looks them in the eyes," says the director of Mission: Wolf.