By Jeff Gebeau Record-Journal correspondent
SOUTHINGTON — About 250 people turned out to DePaolo Middle School on South Main Street Wednesday night to witness live wolves in the gymnasium.
Kent Weber, of Colorado-based Mission: Wolf, a nonprofit wolf advocacy organization and sanctuary for wolves and wolf-dog crosses, brought the animals as part of an educational presentation the group conducts at venues around the country.
Ruth Stanley, co-founder of Wolf Central, introduced Weber.
“Tonight is our Super Bowl,” she said.
Weber, executive director and co-founder of Mission: Wolf, began by showing slides of the Colorado preserve and its wolves and wolf-dog hybrids.
The 50-acre sanctuary is now home to 38 such creatures.
Weber detailed the history of his organization, explaining how it began in 1984 when he first took in one wolf that was raised in captivity, and progressively added more.
Owners no longer wanted the wolves because they were destroying their homes and yards and bothering their neighbors.
Weber said the wolves’ behavior made sense because they aren’t meant to be kept as pets, a lesson which Mission: Wolf endeavors to teach to the public.
However, once people attempt to domesticate wolves or wolf-dogs, they can’t be reintroduced to their natural habitats, he said.
“If a wolf is born in a cage, they have to live in a cage for life,” he said.
Weber’s solution was to create a “big cage,” the Colorado sanctuary.
Within a few years, the preserve had reached maximum capacity and regularly had to turn away wolves and hybrids.
Mission: Wolf has had to turn down more than 10,000 requests since it started, Weber said.
Most of the creatures it is forced to refuse are eventually killed, tragedies that are preventable if people hadn’t tried to domesticate wild animals, he said.
Weber also provided an overview of wolves’ recent history in the United States.
Conservation efforts have helped expand that population to about 5,000 in 13 states, he said.
“It’s really exciting to see wolves making a comeback,” he said.
Wolves can only be found in the wild between the Great Lakes and the Pacific Ocean, but Weber believes they could soon appear in New England.
After the slide presentation, Weber brought in three gray wolves: Magpie, Abraham and Zeib.
The wolves approached audience members without hesitation, allowing people to pet them and rubbing the noses and licking the faces of some of them.
Weber said most of his wolves do not respond as well to the public. He takes the ones that do on his educational tours.
The wolves also engaged in expected canine behavior, play-fighting with each other and relieving themselves.
“They’re marking their territory,” Weber said, eliciting laughter from the crowd.
Two of the wolves chewed into stuffed animals, one of which was completely torn apart.
Weber said the wolves were acting more playful than they do in most of their appearances.
Audience member Jada Fort, 16, said having the opportunity to see them up close caused her to no longer fear the animals.
“I was pretty nervous about the fact that I was actually going to see a wolf in person, but I’m more confident now,” she said. “I like them.”
DePaolo sixth-grader Kristy Palmieri already had a favorable opinion of the creatures, as wolves are her favorite animal.
It was still exciting to experience them in person and have one lick her face, she said.
“It was just, like, fun,” she said.
An encore was scheduled after the event concluded. Stanley said she expected identical turnout.
Weber will also make a presentation tomorrow night at the Polish Falcons Nest on Knowles Avenue, a sold-out event that will offer “a more intimate experience with the wolves,” Stanley said.