The documentary True Wolf opens with a quote by Joseph Campbell, symbolizing how it’s partially about the myths that inform—and more often, misinform—human perception about wolves and their place in society. Once the Little Red Riding Hood fable teaches us that wolves are fiendish, cold-eyed killing machines, it can hard to unlearn that lesson. Films have their narratives to tell, too, and they have to be compelling to persuade an audience. In the most basic sense, True Wolf tells the same story as 2011’s superb documentary Project Nim; both are about the experience of bringing a wild animal into a domestic situation. The difference—beyond the vast disparity in budget and craft—is that Project Nim seizes on the drama of human folly, revealing as much about the flawed people who tried to raise a chimp as it does about the animal itself. By contrast, True Wolf is about responsible people seeking some middle ground in reintroducing wolves back into nature—not exactly the greatest story ever told.
Drawing on a wealth of home-video footage, True Wolf champions a pair of Montana wildlife experts, Bruce Weide and Pat Tucker, who were tapped to care for a wolf pup for the purposes of another documentary. When the filming was over, they were faced with a choice: put the animal down, or raise it themselves in captivity. They took the latter option with clear eyes about the challenges ahead, like the two or three pounds of raw meat the animal would need every day, and the cold fact that it could never be domesticated. Naming it Koani—and wisely acquiring a dog to give it companionship—they used the wolf as an ambassador, bringing it to schools and other public settings to defuse misconceptions about the animal. Director Rob Whitehair doesn’t do much to complicate what’s essentially a promotional featurette for Wiede and Tucker’s Wild Sentry organization, presenting the anti-wolf faction as rabid, irrational, and extreme. But he can’t be blamed for wanting to stoke the drama a little: Without it, True Wolf would be a lesson in the care and feeding of an exotic pet.