By Alice Owens Special to the News & Record
In the 1970s, American red wolves were on the brink of extinction.
The species is on the critically endangered list, and North Carolina boasts the only population of wild red wolves in the world, said Chris Lasher, the animal management supervisor and species survival plan coordinator for the American Red Wolf.
In addition to the small wild population, there are 230 red wolves under human care — 22 of which are at the N.C. Zoo.
So when a litter of five new red wolf puppies was born at the N.C. Zoo in May, it was a big deal.
The red wolves in the breeding program are kept in a private area and are not on display for public viewing. They have little contact with zoo staff and keepers. This allows the pups to be raised in as much of a natural habitat as possible.
Sadly, two of the puppies born in May had to be euthanized because of extensive injuries they received from the father.
“Even though this pair has had pups in the past and we had observed good parenting skills from both mom and dad with this litter, the father wolf caused traumatic injuries to two of the pups,” Lasher said in a press release.
The father was moved to protect the other three pups.
“While a setback like this is difficult for our team to experience, the three remaining pups represent an important step forward for the species,” Roger Sweeney, general curator for the zoo, told the (Raleigh) News & Observer. “We remain focused on fighting to preserve a place for this iconic American species.”
The 230 American red wolves under human care are essentially Lasher’s responsibility. He has been at the N.C. Zoo, where the red-wolf breeding program is the second largest in the world, for 23 years. Lasher’s goal is to see it become the largest. Plans are being made to expand the area used for the breeding pairs.
At one time, American red wolves were plentiful in the eastern part of the United States, Lasher said.
Red wolves are apex predators, Lasher said, meaning no other animal hunts them.
When European settlers arrived, the red wolves were all but eradicated.
“Red wolves are going extinct due to human activity,” Lasher said.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service began its fight to save the red wolves in the 1970s. It captured almost 400 canid-like animals and performed extensive testing on them to find pure red wolves.
“DNA testing wasn’t around then, so they measured length, tail length, ear length trying to find the pure red wolves,” Lasher said.
Researchers found 14 pure red wolves and moved them to Point Defiance Zoo in Tacoma, Wash. The wolves were sent to there because there was no heart worm, parvo or distemper in Washington state, Lasher said. This would help protect the wolves.
All of the red wolves we have today came from these 14 founding wolves.
“We are trying to save as much genetic material as possible,” Lasher said. He travels each year to meet with others caring for red wolves, and they pick new pairs to mate based on which are less genetically related to lessen the effects of inbreeding.
“Unless we find new founding pairs, there is no way to stop inbreeding. We are always losing genetic material, but we are losing it at a slow rate,” Lasher said. Eventually science will allow genetic material preserved in historical samples, such as pelts, to be removed and used to create a new founder, he said.
“There’s no doubt in my mind that we’ll get there. Cloning is the first step towards it,” Lasher said.
The N.C. Zoo is part of the American Red Wolf Recovery Program. Lasher and the zoo works with US Fish and Wildlife to retain the program in North Carolina.
“We should be proud that we are the only place in the world that we know of that has wild red wolves,” Lasher said.
As part of the recovery program, 150 red wolves were released in 1987 along the Alligator River in Eastern North Carolina. Since then, that population has dwindled to 24 to 40 wolves. Some people confuse red wolves with coyotes, but Lasher said the two are different species. Red wolves will avoid contact with humans, whereas coyotes are very adaptable and will live in suburban areas and take the easy pickings of trash and even small pets.
Lasher said that is possible for humans and red wolves to share the world, but it will take working together to ensure the survival of the species. He said the two goals of the red wolf breeding and recovery program are to educate people and expand the capacity under human care so that we can get more red wolves on the ground.
“I cannot let this animal go extinct under my watch,” Lasher said.