By Kate Mishkin | For NJ.com
JEFFERSON — A Sussex County man and his 4-year-old Canadian timber wolf are on a mission — dispel the myth of the “big bad wolf” one community event at a time.
Tecomah, a socialized timber wolf, and her owner Vinnie Reo travel up and down the state for Reo’s not-for-profit, Wolf Visions, the aim of which is to educate the community about wolves.
During the annual Jefferson Days festival on July 10, Tecomah paced in a twine-enclosed circle while children approached the wolf, tugging on their parents’ shirts with one hand and pointing with the other. Parents took out cell phones to snap photos of the animal.
The wolf remained cool, and continued to pace. She’s done this before.
Her busy schedule ranges from visits to senior homes to middle school classrooms.
In the back of Jefferson Township High School between the dunk tank and the firefighter’s booth, Tecomah paced around her allotted seven-foot perimeter.
Onlookers shot dozens of questions at Reo:
“She’s kind of skinny for a wolf, isn’t she?”
“What is that?”
“Can I pet her?”
Tacoma, nonplussed by the onlookers, continued to pace.
Vinnie Reo, a retired middle school science teacher, has owned wolves for nearly 30 years. He bought Tecomah from a breeder in Nevada.
He’s had five other wolves before Tecomah, but only two are still alive. Saffire stays at home in Andover Township, where he also houses alpacas and goats.
Once every few weeks, he buys between 200 and 300 pounds of chicken from Restaurant Depot for his wolves. Then, he freezes it and feeds each wolf five pounds of the raw meat a day.
Reo shrugs. “It’s the same as we eat,” he said.
In the winter, they’ll get venison.
Saffire and Tacoma share different half-acre enclosure so one doesn’t get jealous if Reo pays more attention to one.
“They’re females. They fight all the time,” he said.
He’s quick to point out to onlookers that Tacoma is socialized, not domesticated.
“That means she’s used to people,” he said.
To socialize her, Reo took Tecomah into his classroom at Robert Morris School when she wasn’t bigger than a Chihuahua. They bottle-fed her and pet her so she could get used to the human scent.
Now, she thinks they’re part of her pack.
Mike Depew met Reo about a decade ago at an event not unlike Sunday’s. He saw the wolf and was immediately impressed.
“I told him to call if he ever needed anything,” said Depew. He’ll often help set up and break down the wolf tent, or help stuff wolf fur into vials to be sold.
He’s a financial adviser for an investment broker by day, but he said he likes the idea of sticking up for wolves.
“I just felt like the wolves were demonized,” he said. “Someone should stick up for them.”
At Jefferson Days, his job was setting up and taking down the tent and manning the Wolf Visions tent. The organization sells wolf garments and items, like wolf coffee mugs and bumper stickers that say “Little Red Riding Hood lied.” Nearly $2,500 goes to Defenders of Wildlife a year, Reo said.
Depew remembers one time at a fair when a group of young boy scouts approached the wolf.
“I’m a wolf too!” a young boy said, referring to the stage of boy scouts he’d completed.
That’s why Depew and Reo say they spend long hours at fairs and libraries with Tecomah – they like debunking stereotypes that wolves are angry or big.
“I just like the idea of rooting for the underdog,” Depew said.