A young girl walked into a room at the Garden of the Gods Visitor and Nature Center and wondered: "Is that a wolf dog?"
Wolf sightings aren't common, but dozens of people learned about the animal - and even played with one - during a presentation Sunday as part of the center's Gateway Adventure Series. The purpose of the talk, said Mark Johnson of the Rocky Mountain Wildlife Foundation, was to help the public understand that wolves aren't necessarily dangerous and can be good for the environment.
"In fact, a wolf will run rather than fight," he said.
In movies and fairy tales, wolves are typically portrayed as big, bad animals that are vicious, aggressive and eager to kill everything in sight. But in the wild, activists and wolf experts say, wolves can be beneficial to the ecosystem.
Johnson showed a video titled "How Wolves Change Rivers," about wolves being reintroduced in Yellowstone National Park in 1995. The project helped bring the elk population down and kept the elks from overgrazing. Other ecological changes resulted, including increased populations of other animals and new growth of aspen trees and vegetation.
There's been a push to reintroduce wolves into the Colorado wilderness, particularly in the San Juan Mountains and the Grand Mesa National Forest, Johnson said. A similar idea was shut down by the Colorado Parks and Wildlife Commission two years ago after discussions with ranchers, hunters, farmers and wildlife advocates.
"We have destroyed the ecosystem, but wolves can bring it back to balance," Johnson said.
Since 1996, his foundation - based in Guffey - has rescued more than 50 wolves that had been neglected, abused or injured. The facility welcomes visitors, who can play with the wolves, and offers tours.
On Sunday, Johnson brought Thor, a nearly 6-year-old Alaskan Malamute and gray wolf mix. Kids petted him and adults took pictures with their camera phones.
A little girl asked Johnson how wolves evolved into what they are now. He told her wolves have been around for millions of years and dogs are domesticated from wolves.
"It's hard for me to believe that a chihuahua was once a wolf," he said, laughing.