Nothing prepares you for what it feels like to share a confined space with a wolf. When I entered an enclosure during a recent visit to the Endangered Wolf Center in Eureka, Missouri, and saw a rare red wolf crouched just feet away, I got a jolt of adrenaline. But I knew that the wolf was far more frightened of me than I was of it. And that was a good thing — an instinct that could someday help it survive in the wild.
I’ve never managed to spot a red wolf in the swampy flatlands of eastern North Carolina, my home state — and the only place in the world where Canis rufus still lives wild. Although red wolves were once abundant throughout the US, ranging from eastern Texas through the Southeast and southern New England, they are now the most endangered wolf on the planet. Fewer than 10 of them are known to exist outside captivity. About 240 others are housed in a network of zoos and nature centers, part of an Association of Zoos and Aquariums species survival plan keeping them from extinction.
The second most endangered canids, Mexican gray wolves, are faring only slightly better, with about 200 found in the wild, primarily in the Southwest.
Captive breeding programs at places like the Endangered Wolf Center play a vital role in pulling both species back from the brink. But if the ultimate goal is for their populations to recover so that they will one day live free, then it is essential that their wildness be preserved — including their innate fear of people.
The stakes couldn’t be higher. Three red wolves released into their recovery area in North Carolina last spring were hit by cars and killed within weeks, and a fourth was shot on private land a few months later.
After years of decline, conservation groups and government agencies agree that it’s more crucial than ever to rebuild these populations. The US Fish and Wildlife Service is moving forward with plans to release more wolves in the coming year.
The Endangered Wolf Center, located outside St. Louis, is home to eight canid species, including swift foxes, South American maned wolves, and African painted dogs. I was there to learn about their recovery species, Mexican wolves and American red wolves, and to observe their annual health exams. I joined animal keepers from across the country for training on how to help these critically endangered wolves retain wild traits while they’re living under human care. (The center currently houses 15 red wolves and 28 Mexican wolves.)
Regina Mossotti, the director of animal care and conservation at the center, calls caring for captive wolves while keeping them from becoming habituated to humans “a delicate dance.” To give these animals the best chance of surviving outside captivity, keepers use tools and techniques developed over decades to shape habitats and activities that enrich the wolves’ captive lives, which can include deer carcasses, duck scents, and thorough but speedy health checks.
“Saving animals from extinction is a creative process,” Mossotti explains.
After the workshop, I talked to Mossotti about the difficult balancing act of caring for endangered wolves while also enabling them to remain wild at heart. Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Is it really possible for wolves to retain their innate wild instincts while living under human care?
People often compare wolves to dogs. Dogs have been domesticated for tens of thousands of years. These wolves we are raising in captivity just left the wild a few decades ago, so they are very wild, still. And we’re doing everything in our power to make sure that those natural instincts are retained.
We wouldn’t have red wolves or Mexican wolves today without these captive programs. We pulled the last few remaining wolves out of the wild [in the 1970s], declaring them functionally extinct. And these last wolves were put in zoological institutions across the country where we started these breeding programs in an effort to save them. The [Mexican and red] wolves that we have in the wild today were released from zoos, and we see them doing everything they’re supposed to be doing: they’re hunting, having puppies, staying away from people, and protecting their territory. Those natural instincts are so strong. That’s what helps make these programs successful.
When the US Fish and Wildlife Service founded these programs, they had to be super creative and come up with ways to raise these animals in zoological settings that also maintained the wolves’ natural behaviors — being shy around humans, for one. Running away from people is such an important survival skill for them. So we had to develop techniques that removed humans from the equation — or, at least, we had to make sure that they didn’t associate humans with positive things.
What are some of those techniques for keeping these wolves wild, or ready to be released?
First, we create large habitats for them. Some of the enclosures at our center are half an acre to an acre. This gives the wolves the ability to stay away from people, if they want to. They can hide.
The space also allows them to have multigenerational packs. That’s important because it mimics their behavior in the wild. [In] a multigenerational pack, the litter born the year before gets to help the mom and dad raise the next. They see how to feed, how to protect, how to play with, and how to discipline those puppies — so when they get the chance to start their own family someday, they are awesome leaders that can make sure their puppies are successful and survive.
One of the questions we get asked most is, “How will captive wolves know how to hunt?” They get to hunt anything that goes into their enclosure. Squirrels, possums, raccoons — you name it — some of those animals wander in, and the wolves get to practice their natural hunting skills that way.
We also get deer carcasses donated from trusted hunters, so we’re able to feed [them] natural prey. Even though it’s not alive, they learn the taste of it, and they work together as a pack to eat it. It’s kind of like humans sitting around the family dinner table — it helps bond the pack while they’re eating, and it helps them to know a source of food when they’re released.
We have to be thoughtful about how we can make sure we’re changing their water and giving them food without them seeing us. These animals are so shy that after we quickly put food and water in, it takes them hours afterward to come out and eat it. By the time they’re eating their food, we’re gone. They’re not associating it with people.
Are they expecting food at certain times, though?
We really analyze where and when we need to be around our animals, and how we can minimize habituation to humans. One of the ways that we do that is varying when we feed and how we feed, so that it’s not something that they get used to. If you have a dog at home, and you feed him at 6 o’clock, he knows quickly that at 6 o’clock every day, it’s dinner time. Well, wolves will get habituated to that sort of thing, too. If they don’t know when food is coming during the day, it helps alleviate or remove some of that habituation.
How else do you prepare these animals for the wild?
One of the most important things that we do is provide enrichment. This just means things that help them use natural behaviors and stimulate their brains. Things that will help them be successful in the wild, whether it is how to eat together as a family — if we’re giving a whole deer carcass, for example — or how to mark their territory, because out in the wild they’d have to mark and protect territory from other wolves. For that we use scents in their enclosures — maybe scents from another pack, or something they might find out in the wild, like lavender or duck.
Caching, or being able to save food, is a really important thing that wolves do when times get tough. It’s very difficult for wolves to hunt out in the wild; they’re actually only successful maybe 10 percent of the time. When they’re lucky enough to get dinner — an elk or deer — it lasts their pack, depending on the size, probably at least a week. Sometimes they are dealing with the fact that they may not get more food for a while, or they may have to hide it from bears or mountain lions who want to steal it. Having large enclosures, they get to practice doing that, too.
We’re also able to help them learn to problem solve. We can find a log that has holes in it, maybe, and put food in it, and they’ll have to figure out how to move the log for the food to fall out. We also help them figure out how to forage — to find food when maybe it’s tough to locate big game that they would normally be hunting.
You’re using only natural materials that they would find in the wild, right? Not dog toys or things zoos might otherwise use.
Right. That’s partly why we have to be so creative with enrichment. You go to a pet store and find cool puzzle feeders for your dog — the dog rolls it around, and food drops out. But we can’t use those. We have to come up with ways of doing that kind of stuff with natural elements, whether it’s antlers, deer hides, or trees. And we have to make sure that we don’t use anything that could attract them to where people are, [like] a campsite.
If you have a lion at a zoo, you might use Axe body spray as scent enrichment, something new and unusual. The lions would be intrigued and roll on it and investigate it. We’re not going to use anything like that, because we don’t want to attract the wolves to humans, or for them to associate anything interesting with humans.
The center performs yearly health examinations for these animals. What does rounding them up look like?
The animal care staff that goes in to corral these animals are just forming a human wall. That’s how shy wolves are — they just want to be at the opposite end of wherever people are, as far away as possible. We can use that human wall to slowly and calmly urge them into these smaller areas, and then quickly shut a door to seal them in. And then our staff go into that smaller area and gently hold them in place with our equipment. [Editor’s note: A padded, Y-shaped pole is used to apply gentle pressure to the wolf’s shoulders — the wolf submits readily]. We also put a towel over their face — it’s like magic, the towel. They completely calm down.
That’s when we give them their vaccines, and we’re able to draw blood and check that they’re healthy. Then we are able to gently put a muzzle on their face, so we can lift them into a crate. Then we’ll put the crate on a scale, and get the wolf’s weight to make sure they are eating healthily.
And then once we’re finished, we open the door of the crate, and they run out and go back to their family.
We have fine-tuned these techniques over 15 years so that we’re making sure we are doing it as safely as possible. Every single individual is so important for us to save the species from extinction.
It’s maybe five minutes total. But it is so important to their overall care, and to their successfully being released into the wild, because it reinforces that humans — those two-legged things that they might see out in the wild — they want to stay away from them.
Some of the most recently released red wolves were killed by vehicle strikes. Is anything being done to condition them to be afraid of cars?
That’s actually something we’re trying to figure out right now. [Recovery partners are thinking about] everything from having reflective collars on the wolves to creating wildlife overpasses or underpasses to cross roads. From the human care side, we’re still evaluating how we can help with that. When we’re doing their annual exams, for example, we do drive up in vehicles, so if they hear cars, it’s associated with people doing something they don’t like.
What about wolves that aren’t deemed good candidates for release? Can they still play a role in helping the species survive? By parenting future generations that might live successfully in the wild, for example.
Yes. That happens and it’s amazing. Their family dynamics are so similar to ours, really. It’s so fun to watch, from a distance, the personalities of the puppies as they grow, and see how they interact with their brothers and sisters and mom and dad. They are so nurturing and caring — just the opposite of what we think about them in popular culture.