The wolf pup is chewing, no, devouring the purse strap of a visiting guest, and he won't stop for anyone except Rae Evening Earth Ott.
Rae approaches the furry baby wolf and in one swift motion pries open his steel jaws with her bare hands.
"They're 30 days old, but their teeth are like scissors," she says, pointing out the tiny white daggers inside the wolf pup's mouth. Then she adds, "We're thinking of starting a body-piercing studio."
The crowd of 20 or so milling around Rae's suburban living room titters at the joke. They are in good spirits. All of them have traveled to Rae's house in Spring with $125 and one common passion: wolves. And on this Saturday afternoon, Rae Evening Earth Ott will be their wolf guru.
Rae, a tall, slim woman with long silver hair, is dressed in black jeans and a black T-shirt with three white wolves airbrushed on the front of it. The shiny buckle in her belt reflects the same color as her hair. Her confident, comfortable attitude is the first thing visitors feel when they walk into the room.
Rae, whose heritage is part Irish and part American Indian, has been running monthly wolf workshops for years as part of her work with the North American Wolf Association. NAWA, which started out as a small grassroots organization about ten years ago, became an official not-for-profit group in 1996. Rae is its director. NAWA's aim, in addition to rescuing injured and abused wolves, is to educate the public about the plight of wolves in North America. Today's workshop attendees have a special treat: They'll get to visit with three wolf pups Rae recently rescued from a notorious breeder in New Mexico.
Rob and Carol, a married couple, are some of the first to arrive at the workshop. As a Britney Spears song slips out from Rae's living room radio, the two take their seats on the couch. They are surrounded by wolf tapestries, wolf portraits and wolf sculptures. Hanging above a door frame is a red-and-blue platter decorated with a painting of Rae and a wolf.
"I thought this might be different," says Carol, whose dark brown hair is pulled into a bun at the nape of her neck. She has brought her video camera to record the event.
Rob flips through a magazine about wolves that is sitting on the coffee table. So far, he is the only male in attendance.
"I had to drag him here," whispers Carol.
Sitting in a corner, dressed all in black, is Heather Pristash, an editor with Mead Publishing ("the company that makes Trapper Keepers"). Heather has traveled from Dayton, Ohio, to spend the weekend with Rae and learn as much as she can about wolves so that she can better write the text for the Mead 2003 Wolf Calendar.
"It's a fantastically strong seller for us," says Heather matter-of-factly, peering out from behind gold-rimmed glasses. "We want to take this product and give it mainstream publicity."
Around 2:15 Rae turns off the radio and begins the workshop by handing out navy-blue folders filled with handouts about wolves. One page titled "Wolf Body Language" includes several sketches of wolves in various postures such as "running in fear" and "running in play."
"I speak the language of the wolves," says Rae, as her audience munches on carrots and chips with salsa. "This is not my job, it is my life." The living room congregants nod silently.
One of Rae's teaching tools during her lecture is the handsome wolf-dog mix named Wiconi Waste (pronounced "Wee-CHO-nee WASH-stay," it's a Lakota name meaning "a good life"). Rae saved the animal after Galveston County Animal Rescue discovered the dog dying by the side of the road. A breeder who no longer found her useful had shot her. She was then run over by a car.
"Most wolf dogs do not live until the age of three, because they get killed," says Rae, her voice cracking a bit. Wiconi Waste sleeps in the middle of the living room as Rae retells her sad tale. Carol videotapes the dog with her camera.
Rae continues with her stories about wolves and wolf dogs. How intelligent they are, and how loyal. But she has darker information for her visitors. About how wolves are losing their space in the wild. And about how dangerous it is for people who attempt to adopt wolves as pets. Wolves need to run free in packs, she says. They are not domesticated animals. But illegal breeders who thrive in Texas and New Mexico try to pretend that they are, forcing NAWA to rescue the abandoned animals and relocate them to its reservation in Conroe.
"When we went to New Mexico to rescue these pups, that was probably one of the worst rescues we've had to do," says Rae, as one of the young wolves pokes his nose out from under the couch where he has been hiding. "The floor was fecal material, and we were ankle-deep in it." The crowd remains somber in sympathy.
During a break in Rae's lecture, guest Lori Hebert tempts Wiconi Waste to come to her by placing a tortilla chip in her own mouth. The wolf dog wanders over, steals the chip and kisses Lori in the process. Lori is delighted.
This is her second workshop. Lori discovered NAWA's Web site on New Year's Eve when her husband was working and she was bored, she says. Through Rae's adopt-a-wolf program, Lori sponsors two wolves on NAWA's reservation and spends free time visiting the animals and cleaning out their pens.
"There's just something about wolves," says Lori.
After the lecture, Rae shows a 28-minute movie she describes as "a good fundamental film about wolves." It is titled The Wolf: Beyond the Fairy Tale. The folks in the living room watch as the film opens with piano music accented by the howls of wolves.
"Wolf, where are you, in the lower 48? Once you ran, through the Eastern Seaboard states," begins the opening song. Rae leans against a wall and sings along quietly.
After the video, it's time for dinner. Curtnie Bacon, Rae's personal assistant, has to run to the store to pick up a cake and tiki torches for the evening's campfire. Curtnie met Rae through a friend of a friend. Before she got the job as Rae's assistant, Curtnie worked in accounts receivable for a manufacturing company that "made bathtubs and things." Curtnie thinks her new job is a real improvement.
"People ask, 'What do you do?' and I say, 'Oh, I live with the wolves,' " she says in a sweet, breathy voice.
Toward the end of the dinner break Rae visits with some of her guests. People like Debbie Davis, who has driven from Dallas to attend the event, and Barbara Little, a ninth-grade history teacher who has been to three other workshops and sponsors three reservation wolves. Also hanging out is Mike Lundy, who does multimedia and Web design work for NAWA. A self-described "shape-shifter," Mike thinks Rae is one of the few people who embrace his desire to "color outside the lines."
Rae has tips on all sorts of things. Eating animal flesh? Not a good idea, thinks Rae. Animals are our friends, she says, and we shouldn't eat our friends. Dog shows? Stressful for animals, they should be avoided. Does your animal companion have fleas? Everyday borax will take care of the problem; just sprinkle it on your carpet and you'll be safe for a year. As Rae speaks in her rich, assured voice, the wolf fans sit and listen like she's a preacher in church.
Soon Curtnie is back with dessert, a white sheet cake with photographs of the three rescued wolf pups screened onto the frosting. Rae cuts pieces for everybody. As the crowd eats, Rae welcomes her friend Armondo Rodriguez, who lives on the Alabama-Coushatta reservation in Livingston. Armondo met Rae through the Native American Chamber of Commerce of Houston. He used to give tours and wrestle alligators on the reservation. Now he's a student at Sam Houston State University and works as a storyteller for organizations including NAWA.
"It's a spiritual thing for me," says Armondo.
Outside, in Rae's fenced-in backyard, which is within listening distance of a local firing range, Rae and her friends set up four benches around a fire pit. The tiki torches Curtnie purchased are staked into the ground, and someone lights the mosquito coils to keep the bugs away. Rae throws some Match Light briquettes and logs into the pit. It doesn't have to be a big fire, she says, just enough "for some ambience."
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The audience settles in, and Armondo begins to tell stories and to talk about life on the reservation.
Once Rae has made her guests comfortable, she retreats back inside the house to play with Wiconi Waste and the three wolf pups that she has yet to name. Rae says she is trying to raise enough money to move NAWA and the reservation to Colorado, where the temperate climate will be healthier for her animal friends. But no matter where she is, she says, she will always be in service to the wolves.
"I know every eyelash, I know every whisker," says Rae. "I watch them sleep."
Outside in the backyard, another log is tossed into the pit. For late April, it is surprisingly cool. The wolf fans listen quietly as Armondo tells strange tales of catfish and buffalo. Before anyone can notice, the sun has gone down, and smoke from the fire curls up quietly into the suburban sky.