A lobo named Zoerro shall lead the Lobo Prowl.
Zoerro, a high-content wolf-dog – that’s to say, far more wolf than dog – greeted the University of New Mexico football players as they climbed off the bus Saturday just south of the Pit.
He then led the team across University Boulevard, past a line of cheering fans in the prime tailgate area and up the steps into University Stadium, where later Saturday the Lobos lost 56-42 to the UNLV Rebels in a Mountain West Conference football game.
It’s a ritual that UNM hopes will become a tradition.
“We’ve loved having (Zoerro) around,” says Brian DeSpain, UNM’s director of football operations. “… I think it adds a little bit of excitement to game day, and our players and coaches certainly like having him around. So, from our end, it’s a win-win.”
Zoerro lives at the Wild Spirit Wolf Sanctuary in Candy Kitchen, N.M., near Ramah. The sanctuary exists, according to the Wild Spirit website, for the purpose of providing homes for “displaced, unwanted, and un-releaseable captive-bred wolves, wolf-dogs, and other related species.”
On the website, in an excerpt from a book on his relationship with Zoerro, principal handler Rory Zoerb writes that he purchased an 8-month-old, 80 percent timber wolf/20 percent Alaskan malamute puppy in the state of Washington in the fall of 2009.
“I made a mistake,” Zoerb writes. Zoerro was far too aggressive and wolf-like, he gradually discovered, to live comfortably and safely (for all concerned) as a pet.
Some 18 months later, he brought Zoerro to Wild Spirit. Because of his previous relationship with Zoerro, Zoerb eventually became a full-time Wild Spirit staff member. His devotion to Zoerro, and Zoerro’s to him, deepened with time.
Zoerro, meanwhile, grew to be – according to his Wild Spirit bio – “socialized, well adjusted, happy and playful.”
DeSpain says the relationship with Wild Spirit had its roots in recent news stories about a controversy involving wolves in Idaho. The stories caught the attention of coach Bob Davie.
A few months ago, as the Lobos were winding up their winter conditioning drills, they were paid a visit by another Wild Spirit resident: Forest, a full-blooded timber wolf/arctic wolf. Coaches and players posed for photos with Forest.
Then, in August, Zoerro made an appearance at a UNM fundraiser.
“That’s when we visited with the handlers about the possibility of him being around on game day and leading us on the (Lobo Prowl),” DeSpain says.
Zoerro has been around the staff and players often enough, DeSpain says, that there’s a mutual comfort level.
Still, he says, Zoerb and Wild Spirit executive director Leyton Cougar make it clear this is no puppy dog.
“The handlers are still very cautious about just little things that you might not think about,” DeSpain said. “Not coming up behind him, no real loud voices right close to him, other dogs being around and different smells that may set him off a little bit.”
Saturday, as the UNM band began playing in advance of the team’s arrival, Zoerro showed signs of agitation. Then, however, he fell in between the band and the players and – with Zoerb in firm control – became Saturday’s unquestioned leader of the pack.