True Wolf intimates the convoluted story of how a wolf pup came under the guardianship of Bruce Weide and Pat Tucker, environmental activists living in a cabin at the edge of a small town in western Montana. Born in captivity, the animal couldn’t be released into its natural habitat safely, leaving euthanasia or quasi-domestication its only viable destinies. And so, as Weide and Tucker explain how they conscientiously opted for the latter, we ready ourselves for the dubious spectacle of wolf husbandry. (An animal bloopers reel starring Balto, in other words.) Sure enough, one of the first images to follow the main titles shows Koani—as the fluffy, muscular mass was named—lounging on a couch and gutturally protesting her owners’ commands.
Candid sequences like this, culled from thousands of Weide and Tucker’s lo-fi home videos and interspersed throughout the film, are necessarily laced with both endearment and consternation; though deceptively dog-like, wolves are high-risk pets due to their solitary and predatory hardwiring. (These instincts can be expensive to pacify. It’s estimated that Koani, in her prime, consumed over 1,000 pounds of raw meat a year, which her owners were forced to procure in bulk; they’re shown packing scads of glistening carcass segments into their SUV.) But the canines also possess a numinous allure—a kinetic stateliness, a sense of entitlement one senses can be supported with carnage—that’s far more exotic than the demeanor of their caretaker-dependent brethren. Weide and Tucker show us both sides of wolf ownership, creating a sometimes-confusing teeter-totter of affect: “Wolves are worthy of our respect and we loved raising Koani,” they seem to say, “but don’t try this at home, kids.” The argument, to which Koani is exempt, is that a creature so independent and uncanny should remain independent and uncanny, free to roam its own sanctuaries without being hunted or captured and then assimilated into the urbanized world.
The documentary veers between repetitive and didactic pronouncements of this call to inaction and more affectionately told stories about Koani’s life as an “ambassador wolf” on the elementary school circuit, where she regularly debunked Red Riding Hood-isms. Those unlikely to encounter the “wolf debate” in their own vicinity, on the other hand, are forced to extrapolate the mushier, more symbolic argument being made about humanity’s stewardship of nature, which loses punch if Koani’s haunting, hirsute visage doesn’t happen to be relevant to your geography. (In my hometown coyotes were of more concern, but their folkloric connotations are too distinct from that of the wolf for the film’s eco-hip talking heads to resonate with the backyard fears of my own childhood.)
Even stranger is the movie’s unflagging demonization of “anti-wolf” sentiments, given the hyper-regional specificity of groups that espouse them; one scene dramatizes a sign-pumping, slogan-wearing congregation of wolf-haters as though it’s depicting a lynch mob. The provincial mindset behind this tendentiousness, however, suggests that True Wolf is best read as an auto-portrait of a passionate community, one often torn apart by its concomitance with feral territory. The eerie ending, which lingers on Koani’s final resting place, illustrates however clumsily how commonplace death becomes on the border between civilization and wilderness.