ASHEVILLE — The newest, most enticing, warmest and fuzziest attraction at the WNC Nature Center might be one the public never gets to see.
The birth of four red wolf pups earlier this month brings the number of the federally endangered red wolves living at the nature center to seven, said center director Chris Gentile. But the fur balls might not stay long.
With fewer than 400 red wolves left in the world, Asheville is home to about 2 percent of their population, “which is incredible if you think about it,” Gentile said. “It’s a great thing to have happen in Asheville, a privilege for us at the nature center and a real boon for the red wolf breeding program as a whole.”
The center’s resident 3-year-old female red wolf, Mayo, gave birth to the four pups May 9. The announcement was made Thursday night at the Mountain Safari, a fundraiser for Friends of the WNC Nature Center.
The pups, two males and two females, are considered part of a larger than average litter for a first-time mother. Their father, Phoenix, was brought from a nature center in Albany, Ga., as a possible breeding partner for Mayo. Her father, 15-year-old Rufus, has lived at the nature center for several years.
Gentile said Rufus’ grandpups most likely will not be named, since there is a chance they won’t stay in Asheville. The center, which is part of the city of Asheville Parks, Recreation and Cultural Arts Department, doesn’t own the red wolf pups, Gentile said.
The pups are part of the Red Wolf Species Survival Program, a partnership between the Association of Zoos and Aquariums and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which keeps track of all red wolves in zoos worldwide and makes recommendations on which wolves should breed to increase the health of the population.
“We don’t know what they’re going to recommend, if they will send the pups off to different zoos around the country, or if they will decide to breed Mayo and Phoenix again,” Gentile said.
The red wolf program began in the early 1970s as the animals, native to North Carolina, were getting close to extinction.
“The red wolves were outcompeted by nonnative coyotes, who were better able to live around human habitation,” Gentile said. “At one time, red wolves did live in the Southern Appalachians. They would have been a common sight about 200 years ago. But as people started settling the areas, red wolves were less able to adapt than coyotes.”
The handful of remaining wolves were brought to different zoos, and, through careful breeding and release programs, they were brought to their current levels. Only about 100 red wolves live in the wild, most of them at Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge near Manteo, Gentile said.
The pups are healthy and developing normally in a third-of-an-acre enclosure out of public view, where they will remain for at least the next six months. Nature Center veterinarian Ross Prezant said it is important for the development of the pups to interact as little as possible with people.
The pups, who have just opened their eyes and are still nursing, stay in a whelping box designed under Fish and Wildlife specifications and are handled only for veterinary purposes. Prezant said Mayo cleans the box herself.
A renovated red wolf exhibit, including Rufus, is scheduled to begin construction soon, part of the center’s “2020 Vision: Wild Asheville” master plan.
The long-range plan calls for improving the walkway to the red wolf exhibit, with improved interpretive graphics and better places to view the wolves, Gentile said. It also includes plans to expand conservation efforts, add animal species, exhibits and educational space, and improve guest amenities and accessibility to meet ADA standards.
People are already excited. May was another banner month for visitation at the Nature Center, with more than 11,000 visitors, Gentile said, pushing visitation up 5,000 more than at this time last year.
The Nature Center had record attendance in 2011 with 92,000 visitors, the most since the center opened in the mid-1970s.
“We’re not showing any signs of slowing down,” Gentile said. “People are just really excited about what we’re doing at Nature Center and respect the conservation efforts we have.”