Return of the Wolves:The Next Chapter

Kent Weber

Kent Weber Transcript
Wolves 2/KUED
 
Kent Weber
Kent Weber, and I'm the director of Mission Wolf.
 
Interviewer
Why are people so emotional about wolves?
 
Kent Weber
Everyone has something to say about a wolf. It's fear of the creature that eats grandmothers, that eats little pigs. It's the nemesis of our hero, the cowboy. The other side of life is the wolf is the creator of our best friend, the dog. Wilderness with wolf in it is a healthy wilderness. So the wolf now has become this emotional piece for symbol of the wilderness, and it's the only species that splits your mind in half. One side is absolute fear, the other side is admiration, so everybody has something to say about a wolf.
 
Interviewer
What have you learned from living with wolves?
 
Kent Weber
I've learned that wolves are very honest, very direct. You can't hide your attitude around them. If my wife and I have an issue with each other and we want to go take the wolf to meet you, for example, the wolf's like, "No way, mom and dad has got an issue. I'm not going anywhere." And what they do is they see right through you. I think many students that come here; they gain a lot of therapy. We don't bring them here for therapy, but just meeting that wolf, you can't hide your attitude from a predator, and when you're put face to face it makes you honest with yourself. I think that's the best thing I've learned is how to be honest.
 
Interviewer
How did these wolves come to be here?
 
Kent Weber
Every wolf here was born in a cage, and I do not like animals in cages. I grew up in the woods of Idaho. I grew up on ranches. I understand that culture. And you never put a wild animal in a cage. It's just common sense. But today Americans are so devastated with wilderness. It has been destroyed--98% of the habitat's gone in many many areas. So now Americans are being told, gee I like it, oh I'm supposed to go buy it, let me get a wolf as a pet, so that's where a majority of our wolves come from. If you want to make a movie about a wolf, the work you guys have to do to go find a wolf to let you take his picture in the forest? That's tremendous, and twenty years ago it was impossible. You couldn't have done what you're doing today. So people will go to a zoo and take a picture of a wolf or buy a wolf from the zoo even better yet, and make a movie and then they don't want the wolf after the movie. So every wolf here was born in a cage. They come from captivity and they are not candidates to be returned to the wild.
 
Interviewer
What kind of pet does a wolf make?
 
Kent Weber
A wolf might make you a friend, but it won't make you a pet. If you treat a wolf, or any animal, with respect and you understand basic communication signals, you can get most any species to interact with a human. But people, unfortunately, see the wolf like a big dog. They see the wolf as a symbol of the wilderness. It has ended up with 1/4 million wolves in cages in the United States, another 1/4 million where people mix a wolf with a dog. Of course they want them to look wolf and act dog. That doesn't work very good. Most are dead in three years. I've turned down 10,000 homeless ones from somebody who bought a wolf as a pet. They can't keep it. They love it. They're not going to kill it. So, lets go turn it loose to the wild. That is the biggest problem we have with wild wolf recovery is people letting captive wolves get loose.
 
Interviewer
Why did you start this facility?
 
Kent Weber
This facility started me. We came across a wolf in a cage and I didn't like that idea that it was going to die, so we gave it a home, and I said you ought to have a big one. We got a federal and a state license. Everything I learned about the wolves was everybody was afraid and they either wanted to kill it, because that's what humans do to things we don't understand--we destroy it. And the other side of life is people wanted to buy it, own a piece of it. And I was so disgusted with both sides of that life that we came out here to live very simply, my wife and I, have a nice facility, take care of a few wolves, and everybody and their brother came to see us. They wouldn't leave us alone. I never did get to build our house. We put the land in the wolves' name in 1988 as a nature center, and then...
 
Interviewer
(take 2) Why did you start this facility?
 
Kent Weber
I think Mission Wolf started itself. I don't like wolves in cages. I think they suffer, and we thought it was kind of like an impossible mission to keep a wolf happy in captivity, so it's completely in sarcasm--Mission Wolf. The second thing is to get wolves back in the wild. That seemed absolutely impossible. When I was a kid we were told they were going to go extinct, and I never accepted that, but we came across a wolf that needed a home. If you do anything do it right. We got a federal license, and the next thing I knew everybody I met had something to say about a wolf. We tried to build a house, take care of a couple of captive wolves just to give them a lifelong home, and the next thing everybody came to see us, and the teacher said, "Bring your wolf to school." The Director of the Fish and Wildlife said, "Bring your wolf to Washington D.C." The Fish and Wildlife Service, the Park Service, the Forest Service, the Cattleman's Association all asked me to bring a wolf to see them. And I think that's what we learned is humans don't understand anything until they have an experience, so we didn't go out and plan Mission Wolf. Mission Wolf is like mission impossible. If we could ever figure out how to get wolves back in the wild and out of cages that will be our success.
 
Interviewer
How do children react to wolves?
 
Kent Weber
Children and old (or all) people have a profound interaction with wolves. What I see is wolves see humans as kind of like funny looking wolves--that's how they behave. And of course if we behave appropriately they will show their respects, their consideration. They don't see us as prey; they see us more as an equal predator. But wolves are afraid of us guys. Many of the guys that work here can't get close to the wolves. The women--I don't know what you girls have, but it's a maternal instinct that allows wolves to go to most women, and they just feel very comfortable with women compared to guys. But wolves love kids, and kids love wolves. And it's just amazing to watch this interaction where I can take a six or seven year old child, they will behave like an adult, and that's the one thing different that kids out West that get to see predators--you walk into their school, they're quiet. Kids out East and on the very strong West Coast where we've killed all the predators, they never get to see an animal, they never learn to sit quiet. So we see a lot more respect with children that live around a strong predator, natural population. And when I go to areas where kids don't even get to see a deer, you've got armed guards at the doors of the school, you've got absolute chaos, everybody's screaming and yelling, until the wolf walks in, and of course all of the students instantly they're scared. They shut up, then all of a sudden the wolf sniffs one of them on the nose and they go, "Ohhh, he didn't eat me," and just like that they all of a sudden have admiration and respect. And four year olds have an attention span of about four minutes. We've had them sit for 45 minutes around a sleeping wolf asking polite questions. So predators teach people to be calm, and I think you see where our society is. We've destroyed so many predators people don't have that experience, and they don't know how to take care of each other.
 
Interviewer
What does Mission Wolf teach children about wolves?
 
Kent Weber
Mission Wolf is simply a place where students, and any people can come have an experience to at least see a wolf up close; many people have never had that opportunity. To see a wolf that's not scared to death and pacing around like you'd see in so many zoos, and when it's possible we like to let as many people have, you could say a handshake with a wolf. You and I shake hands to say hello. Wolves have to sniff noses. They look at eyes. So when people here get a chance to have that experience, they forget all the words we said in a moment. They'll never remember all the stories, all the videos, all the books, but humans always remember an experience. So that's the best thing that Mission Wolf can offer is a chance to see a wolf and learn they don't eat you. They don't make pets. You shouldn't have them in a cage, and that a wolf in a forest will provide an environment that will eat more green house gas and put out more oxygen than any known living environment. If we could get the science out to our politicians, oh my gosh we might change the world.
 
Interviewer
Is the wolf's fierce reputation justified?
 
Kent Weber
The wolf is fierce, that I will say. They are strong top-level predators, but they aren't near as fierce as humans. A wolf knows to kill for food, for survival. They don't kill for fun--something humans need a lot to learn from. Is the reputation there? No. I think wolves are so close to humans in a sense that… I live in the woods. I take care of a bunch of wolves. I get snowed out, and I have to ski for hours in here, and I'm skiing in I'll hear those wolves howl from five miles away. It puts a chill up the center of my back. I'm out on these fancy skis. I got my, you know fancy Gore-Tex and Patagonia gear, and I'm like, oh my God try to imagine doing that 100 years ago. You got an old bear jacket that you can barely carry it's so heavy. You've got an old pair of barrel slats on. You've got your bow and arrow or maybe your muzzle if you're lucky, and you're going to try and catch a deer and all of a sudden this pack of wolves runs by you, takes out your deer and keeps on going. It not only would scare you, it would make you mad. So the wolf is a competitor. They don't deserve the reputation they have, and today our society is so upset with politicians, the wolf is the most political animal out there. And all this killing of wolves and the justifying and the fun for killing, I think that's disgusting, but it's basically our people can't get mad at politicians so they take it out on the wolf.
 
Interviewer
How would you describe their personalities?
 
Kent Weber
The wolves have a unique as personality as you and I and every person watching this film. You watch a family have two children; one's academic and one's athletic. I have wolves here that were raised in the same environment and one is very social with humans, and actually wouldn't make too bad of a pet as far as wild animals go, and it's incredibly outgoing. The other one, scared to death, won't go around humans, you know so we see unique personalities. It's nothing that we really show. I think their genetic makeup predicts what they're going to be as they mature, just like humans.
 
Interviewer
In your opinion, do wolves belong in the West or has their time passed?
 
Kent Weber
Wolves belong everywhere. They lived here before humans ever arrived, and in the countries, Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran where mass mayhem is going on, humans have occupied so much of the land and destroyed so much habitat that now there's no room for the wolf. They'll never get them back. But in areas in the United States, biggest place left in the world that we could see wolves return to over 50% of the habitat. They were only 2% when I moved out here. They're now back in about 6-7%, a tiny fraction of the area they could live, and it's only humans ignorance that does not allow the wolf to expand. And as soon as politicians figure out that a wolf makes an elk run, lets the trees grow, the elk aerate the ground, the trees put shadows on the ground, and all of a sudden we're culling (?) down the ground. We're giving fish cold water. Beaver are returning. You're getting insects returning. You're getting birds, more life in a creek with a wolf than any other creek that we know. If politicians would figure this one out, we would have wolves back all over the West. Why would wolves not return to the West? Human ignorance. That's why we say it's education vs. extinction, and we're not talking wolves.
 
Interviewer
Should they be reintroduced?
 
Kent Weber
Should wolves be reintroduced? That's a human factor and that gets politicians involved, and the interesting fact is that when they put wolves to Yellowstone Park they knew what to do, but they had to tell the public about it. Of course they are a government agency, they should. The process of telling the public about it took five to six years, six million dollars, and when they finished they did the exact same job that they started with. So when you say reintroduction, we just ramp up all kinds of tree-huggers vs. tree-cutters, you know wolf haters vs. wolf huggers, and reintroduction seems to cause a lot of problems. But in some areas where the animal is so extirpated, so removed, there's no chance of getting the wolf back, reintroduction is the only way to set an environment straight. So I think humans do a lot better when wolves naturally recover. They do it on their own. It's not this forced situation. And we have shown that there is a corridor that can go all the way from Canada to Mexico that wolves could follow, and we could have wolves in Colorado right now if humans changed just a few of their ways of life. So I think natural recovery is a lot better way, and humans will adapt to that a lot better. Of course it's a little slower, and us humans aren't good at patience. So reintroducing wolves is very political. Getting wolves back is very important for our future. We won't see it in our future, you and I, but our kids are definitely going to see a benefit if we can figure out a way to get the wolves back across a good part of the West.
 
Interviewer
What advice do you have for ranchers living with wolves?
 
Kent Weber
I come from a ranching family. I have a sanctuary that has 40 wolves that's completely supported by ranchers. I understand that territory. Today it's just like the corporate business has taken over all the mom and pa businesses. It's the corporate rancher that's causing all the problems. Mom and pa ranchers usually know where their cows are. They take good care of their animals. If they have a diseased animal because a predator got in, usually they know they're not practicing the best animal husbandry. But a corporate rancher has all of the motivation in the world to get the government to go out and subsidy and kill the predators instead of providing people to protect the livestock. If you are that one rancher and the cow lands in your field, I've talked to those ranchers, it's devastating. It can be your livelihood. It can set you back many years. Should they be compensated? I wish somebody would compensate me when somebody takes things here, and they don't. I have some insurance plans, which I think the ranchers have, but that's not going to be a solution. That's a Band-Aid. What we need to do is just teach people how to live with the land. And if you have a wolf that's going to go in and eat a cow, they're just going to teach the babies to eat a cow and you're going to end up with a bunch of dead cows and a bunch of dead wolves, so it would be probably wiser to kill that one wolf that's learning to habituate to humans and it will be an example to the other wolves to stay away from humans. But to go out into their wilderness and kill wolves because you don't want them on your ranch? That's not acceptable. This wilderness
***
belongs to all of us, not just the rancher. I support the rancher. We live in a ranching community, and… The ranching community is the one oftentimes viewed as the being the most opposed against wolf recovery. A lot of tree hugger environmentalists think the only good rancher is a dead one, when in fact many ranchers are far better environmentalists than many tree huggers are. They know how to live with the land. And so if a rancher is going to have a problem with any predator, they need their right to protect their livestock. How much does that include the right to destroy the animals for the rest of us to see, for the rest of the environment to have? I don't think that's a right that they should have, and that seems to be what's in question. The one thing that we did observe is humans love conflict. We just love it. So when we went into Yellowstone and you had 20 people sitting around a round table discussing how do we get wolves to Yellowstone? And you had a rancher and a hunter and a trapper and a recreationist and a tree lover and a tree hugger and a wolf hugger, they weren't going to see eye to eye. They fought for weeks to try to come to an agreement that they could all live with, and they did that. But that wasn't very exciting for the media. The media wasn't in the courtroom looking at all this labor to get to the point. They were outside the courtroom and they got the most obnoxious tree hugger that said, "The only good rancher is a dead one," and they got the most obnoxious rancher to say, "The only good tree hugger was a dead one," and it splits the point in half where the reality is, most of these groups, most of the ranchers, most of the hunters have learned that a wolf has certain benefits to their area. But of course if you're the one rancher that has a conflict, it can really hurt your livelihood. I have compassion for those guys.
 
Interviewer
What do you hope to accomplish with Mission Wolf?
 
Kent Weber
If we accomplish anything with Mission Wolf it would be that old mission impossible. We would become obsolete. The only reason Mission Wolf exists is to take in the unwanted pet wild animals that people continue to buy, and we can't regulate because we can't identify them. And the other thing that Mission Wolf has now become far beyond helping wolves is helping people. We're going to log 40,000 hours this summer of teaching young people about nature. I have so many people coming that we have to turn them away. We have had to tell groups, "Sorry, we don't have room," and the point is our society is really really really hungry for experiences with nature. We've destroyed it. We now really want to get it back. The second thing is, and most important, is our youth today has not been taught how to build things. Most of the mechanics, the welding, the art, the music classes are gone, and we have kids that come here now that are 25 years old and have never built anything with their hands. They long for it, and when you show them that you hold the hammer at the bottom and it swings a little harder, Mission Wolf becomes a place where we give people experiences on simply how to survive. We've also built this whole place on recycled material. This building that we're standing in is completely solar powered at 9,300-foot elevation, built out of scrap-recycled materials by mostly teenagers. It took a long time to build it, definitely the hardest thing I've ever done in my life, but now we are showing people a way to take care of themselves, a way to be sustainable, which our society talks a lot about, but there's not a lot in practice.
 
Interviewer
When is it ok to kill a wolf?
 
Kent Weber
When is it ok to kill anything? You don't do it for your own personal needs. You do it for survival. If you got to kill a wolf to protect yourself, your family, your livestock, that shouldn't be a big problem. To go kill them all, that's the problem. And to justify that gee cause this wolf is a bad wolf and it's habituated around humans and it has killed this guy's sheep, you know one rancher said, "Don't tell me that a wolf eats everything, because I've seen it come into my fields and kill a lot of my sheep. And it didn't just kill one and eat it. It killed them all." And of course I looked at the rancher and I said, "Well of course sir. The healthiest sheep you can produce, the strongest, buff-est, toughest sheep that you can produce is an inferior animal in the eyes of that wolf." Bison and elk and deer know to stand their ground. They'll look at that wolf, “you even try it I'm going to kick ya,” and the wolf barely gets any food. They got to work hard to find a sick, diseased elk or deer. But you take a wolf into a herd of 100 lambs or cows or sheep and they'll stand there looking at it. Well the wolf is going to be just like you and I… “I want a free dinner ticket for tomorrow. Hey there's dinner. Oh gee there's another one. It's standing there here. I'll take that out for next week. Oh God there's another one. It's just standing there. I better get that.” And pretty soon a wolf has taken out a year worth of food. Of course they can't store it, but it's just no different than you or I. When we go into a place and somebody gives us free handouts, we'll do it. So all it comes down to is so simple. You don't have to kill the wolf to protect your livestock. You simply know where your animals are. You can provide guarding dogs. They've got llamas, they've got fladry. Defenders of Wildlife runs this program where they run range riders. You go out and they take tree huggers and make them live with the rancher, and every time the wolves come by the tree huggers have to chase the wolves away, and if they don't the wolves get killed. And that's life. It goes on.
 
Interviewer
Kent, what's the purpose of the Ambassador Wolf?
 
Kent Weber
It's what people started calling it. We found that we have some wolves that aren't so afraid of people. It's just their natural instinct. And if they trust myself and my wife kind of as their caretakers, and I trust you then I can get you a chance to meet a wolf. So that's all we simply found is that people were just amazingly, I mean it's kind of scary how excited people get to meet a wolf. And there's people that come thousands of miles, and they work and they spend every penny they've got just simply to have an encounter with nature. So I think the Ambassador Wolf has become the one animal that I can, in thirty minutes, walk into a room and instantly everybody--I don't care how big that room is--I've walked into rooms with five and six thousand people, the second that that wolf walks into the room everybody stops dead. You could hear a pin drop. And these are in inner city schools where you never get that behavior, and in 10 minutes that wolf will walk in, make a presence, everybody stops. Of course they're scared, and the wolf walks around. It will pick out the bully, the scape goat, the valedictorian, the kid that has had a lot of trauma, somebody has had a health issue. I don't know it, but boy that wolf knows it in a second. Especially when they go up to the bullies and big tough kids and all of a sudden they're scared and they're sitting there and the wolf sniffs them on the nose and they're like, "Ohhhh," and you watch them go from go from absolute horrid fear to absolute admiration in the split second. The wolf says hi for 30 seconds. There's not much that happens. The wolf walks in, looks at a few people, picks out one or two people to say hello to, lays down on the floor and goes to sleep, and those kids will sit there for an hour watching the wolf sleep. And I finally asked the kids, "Do you ever sit this quiet in your life?" "Uhh huh," and then I ask the kids, "How many have every seen a deer?" And in schools we've had only three hands go up with hundreds of kids. You have a society today that is so disconnected from nature. They've not only been taught, if you like it go buy it, so they're buying pet wolves of course, but they also have no concept about their behavior. They don't know how to be quiet. And the Ambassadors did this to an inner city school in Vermont. Bad, bad conflict--they couldn't put artwork up in the halls. I told the teacher, "I'm coming to your school unless you put all the kids together." She's like, "You don't know what you're talking about. If I put this many kids together in my gym I'm going to have a riot." And I'm like, "This is elementary." She's like, "Ya, do you know what sixth and seventh graders can do? They can be really tough." And I kind of laughed at her on the phone. I said I wouldn't come unless she got the kids together. And of course when we walked into the gym there was a few hundred of these kids. It was just chaos. And I said, "If you're going to meet a wolf you're going to stand up, get to the walls." We rearranged them, put them in a circle (?) seating. The wolf walked into the room just a few minutes later and everybody shut up. And the wolf walked around and said hi. The wolf lay down on the floor. The kids started asking polite questions. We went through an hour assembly with complete respect. Afterwards the principal came up and shook my hand and said, "I never would have believed that if I hadn't have seen it," and the next year she had me come back to her school in Vermont from Colorado because she said, "It changed our school." I did that for four years in a row, first assembly right start of the year. It completely changed the school. They now have artwork up in the school. They became, their mascot of course was a wolf, and we're not doing the Ambassador to make people fall in love with wolves. The wolf has simply become a symbol of nature. Nature is being destroyed. People appreciate it. And I now turn down 80% of the requests from universities and schools and museums that think I've got nothing better to do than take a wolf to their school. We've let a million people see them. We've been in 30 states, but we can't do this forever.
 
Interviewer
Talk about compassion and killing.
 
Kent Weber
You know to kill a wolf for the fun of it, or to kill anything for fun; humans, whatever, I just don't understand. And it wasn't until just recently that I learned this scientifically. We all know that we're all wired different. You know you got two kids in a family that are academic or athletic. You got two wolves; one is social, one is not. They've all been raised in the same environment. It's just our brains are wired different. It's a function of our nutrition, and of course our genetic base, but scientists have learned that the frontal lobe of our brain, some people it is evolved in more, and those people have compassion. Well of course if they have compassion they have remorse. They don't kill for fun. They think it's sad to kill. If I have to shoot this deer for dinner, that's not a happy oh boy lets go hunting. It's, "all right dear, I'm going to go get us some food. Wish me luck." They respect the animal. But there's a bunch of humans today it seems that don't have this evolutionary trait and they don't have this level of compassion. They don't have the capacity for it. It's not that they are bad people or they didn't learn, they're just evolutionarily different. Well here's the thing… If you don't have compassion, you don't have remorse. So we got people walking in shooting kids. We got people going out into the woods using leg-hold traps, which is one of the most barbaric devices we have in our society--I mean it's of the stone age, and yet we still use it. And it's, I think people aren't evolved. They don't have compassion. And if you don't have compassion, you don't have remorse.
 
Interviewer
Tell us the story of the new pups.
 
Kent Weber
Mission Wolf gets requested to take in animals literally every day. I just turned one down while we were talking today. If I take in an adult wolf, say you've had it, it knows you and has grown up with you, and it would be like you giving me your teenage child. Your child would never accept me, even if I gave it a million dollar home, your kid is want to run home and be with you. Well wolves, unlike dogs (dogs can go from home to home, that's part of domestication) a wolf bonds with his owner. So who wants to give up a puppy? I've turned down 10,000 animals. If I took one wolf here that's an adult, one wolf there that's an adult, and put them in a cage it's kind of analogous to you going down the street and grabbing some guy or some girl and going here's an apartment, have a family. It's not going to work. We select our own mates. So do wolves. So I turn down the majority of the requests because of that. Three days ago we got a call to take in little puppies. These puppies will be able to go in with the other wolves. They will grow up and have a life here. They will enrich the other wolves because wolves love to have babies. Of course we don't do any breeding. There's no good reason to have a wolf in a cage. But a zoo that breeds wolves for movies and other zoos had an accidental litter. They didn't have the facilities, so they called us, and last night we took in three baby wolf puppies. They're only 3 1/2 to 4 weeks old. They look identical to a little Husky, a little German Shepherd, and yet it's illegal to sell a wolf, but I could lie about it and I could sell you one of these puppies and call it part dog. I could also take a Husky, and if I think you like wolves, I could sell you this Husky and say it's part wolf to scam you to get more money. So the puppies that you're going to see are going to grow up here. They're going to live here for the rest of their life. If they're outgoing they can be an Ambassador--have a purpose for their life, teach people not to be afraid. And if they're scared to death of humans (because one of the puppies is already really outgoing and one of them is really timid) and if the timid wolf ends up just being scared to death, pacing around in a cage, it's going to be an example to visitors why we should stop having wolves in cages. And the day we do our job will be the day that wolves are not needed in captivity. We can tear down the fences at Mission Wolf, and we hope some day to study wolves in the wild. And you don't have to come here and have the kids today meet a wolf inside a fence. We'd like them to see them in their own forest.

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