Wolf People — on Highway 95 south of Sandpoint, Idaho — illustrates how operations can have a variety of goals. Owner Nancy Taylor has been in the business for 18 years. Not only does she sell wolf-related jewelry, coffee mugs, refrigerator magnets and clothing, she'll also help you set up a Wolf People "franchise store" with the "trademarked logo" and a full inventory ready for your customers; "live wolves ... are always a big attraction," her website says. Yet Wolf People also advertises itself as "A Northwest Wolf Education Facility," claiming to dispel old myths and negative attitudes in a state where the governor and a majority of the legislators want hunters to kill 75 percent of the wild wolves. As I paid for my tour, the woman running the cash register said, "You can hold a wolf puppy and get your picture taken. It's really fun." One litter of pups was planned, she told me, but "the other was (giggle) a happy surprise. We needed pups because some of our wolves are older and getting ready to pass on."

In one visit to Wolf People, I was in a group of about 10 tourists. We climbed into our cars to caravan to the wolf enclosure a couple miles up the road. Once we arrived, however, we were told to stay in our cars. A gangly young employee, his face pale with worry, was scouring the compound: A wolf had escaped its enclosure. Ten minutes later, it was caught and returned to its pen. (I learned afterward that a white wolf had escaped a few weeks earlier by digging under a fence; it still hasn't been found.) When the tour finally started, our guide hauled out a large tub of hotdogs so the wolves would "get their lazy butts up" to the fence; some leapt four vertical feet to snag a hotdog. The guide spent the entire hour-long talk telling us about the care of the captives — certainly a subject of interest — but said nothing about wild wolves and their plight on that day or the next, when I attended a second tour.

But Taylor and her employees clearly mean well and care about wolves. Although the enclosures are only 5,000 square feet (about an eighth of an acre), most have plenty of trees, so the wolves can hide if they wish, and thanks in part to some top-shelf meat from Walmart, the animals are well fed. Right next to the cash register in the gift store is a fact sheet that describes the wolf's role in the ecosystem. The store also carries information about legislation and has petitions in favor of wild wolves, which visitors can sign. And Wolf People's support for the Northern Idaho Wolf Alliance helps that group stage protests against wolf hunts.

Colorado's Wolfwood and Arizona's Eagle Tail have policies against breeding captive wolves. So does Mission: Wolf, founded by Weber more than 20 years ago and housing mostly wolves that would otherwise have been euthanized, as do all the best operations. Mission: Wolf emphasizes educating people about wolf biology. Weber believes that if people can touch a wolf, they’ll care about the species. He told me that some people come away from a wolf encounter saying, “That was the most amazing experience of my life.” For abused kids and adults with severe emotional problems, “a 30-second encounter with a captive wolf can change everything.” Do those brief encounters really translate into action on behalf of wild wolves, or are the effects limited to some kind of personal transformation? According to Nicole Paquette, former senior vice president of Born Free USA, a group that campaigns against the use of animals in the entertainment industry, there is no evidence that people who encounter captive wolves and other wildlife retain what they’ve learned or go on to help species in the wild by donating to conservation efforts or protecting habitat. But there’s a lack of hard evidence for either viewpoint, and who doesn’t experience a feeling of awe at being close to a wolf?

Wolf Haven International, south of Olympia, Wash., breeds an extremely rare subspecies, Mexican gray wolves, to assist a long-term federal reintroduction effort in Arizona and New Mexico. The reintroduction has crashed into rancher resistance since it began in 1998; only about 50 wild Mexican wolves have survived in those states. According to Wendy Spencer at Wolf Haven, two of its Mexican wolf family groups have been released in the Southwest, in 1998 and 2000. Two females born at Wolf Haven are scheduled for release this year into Mexico. Wolf Haven also helps maintain a genetically diverse population of captive red wolves — a Southeastern U.S. species that was rebuilt in the wild through captive breeding. Wolf Haven has received some government funding, but for the most part its participation in the official “Species Survival Plans” for both the Mexican gray wolf and the red wolf are funded by donations.

Animal caretakers at Wolf Haven follow a stringent protocol to prepare wolves for life in the wild. Visitors never see — much less touch — wolves destined for release. Staff are permitted in the pre-release area only to provide food and water and perform maintenance on the enclosure. Remote cameras allow staff to monitor the animals without interacting with them. As Spencer put it: “These wolves must retain their innate wariness of humans. A habituated wolf (in the wild) is a dead wolf.”

Wolf Haven’s conservation director, Linda Saunders, is playing a key role in composing Washington’s wild-wolf management plan. And like Mission: Wolf, Wolf Haven uses only rescued wolves for its education program. On the Wolf Haven tours I took, there were no tricks, no treats, no petting — and nobody minded. We walked from one enclosure to the next as the guide discussed rancher-wolf conflicts in the West and explained the wolf ’s role in the ecosystem, using a flip chart to show its historic range and positive effect on vegetation health. Without any prompting, the wolves started up a chorus of howling. When a tourist asked the guide how often wild wolves eat, I realized how little people really know about these animals. The guide explained that wolves succeed in killing prey only one out of every 10 tries. The group nodded with new appreciation. To learn something about the wolf is to begin to value it.

Other captive-wolf operations are considering changing their practices to better help wild wolves. Chris Anderson, president and CEO of Idaho’s WERC, questions the tour-and-gift-shop model. “If I wanted to start a T-shirt business, I could do it a lot more effectively,” he says. Anderson is working toward virtual education. Instead of hosting 2,000 visitors each summer, he thinks he can educate 2,000 people a day through the Internet, setting up a webcam in the wolf enclosure. All of WERC’s wolves are rescued animals, and Anderson wants his operation to play an active role in resolving the conflict between ranchers and wolf advocates in the Pacific Northwest.

I met my own wolf-dog, Inyo, when she was one breath old. I had just escaped from an abusive relationship, and I invested that tiny creature with all the power of popular myth. I believed that wolf-dogs were more protective and loyal than “ordinary” dogs, so I imagined that Inyo would protect me from anyone who wanted to hurt me. But even before her eyes had opened, Inyo was struggling, hell for leather, and didn’t want to be held by any human. As she grew up, she got more determined to explore her environment and run free.