Nature Center visitors excited by glimpse of rare animals
Written by Karen Chávez
ASHEVILLE — Eight bright little eyes peeked from under a wood shed, while eight furry ears twitched. They teased the human gawkers with a quick flash of reddish brown fur as they dashed from tree to tree.
It was the much-anticipated public debut for the four red wolf pups Thursday at the Western North Carolina Nature Center.
The wolf pups — two brothers and two sisters — were born May 9 at the nature center to resident red wolf Mayo and father Phoenix, and have been kept out of public view since then. But they are now free to roam, run and strut in the red wolf exhibit on full public display.
If they so choose.
“From the time they were born, they knew they were wolves, and not dog puppies,” said nature center animal curator Allison Ballentine. “We handled them on day 2 and got growls. On week 1 we got snarls. On week 2, when I was handling one wolf pup, another puppy snuck up behind me and was growling. Their instincts are strong. Wolves don’t enjoy being around people.”
That should not keep people from coming to see them, however, said nature center director Chris Gentile.
“People have been asking when they could see the pups since they were born. The word has gotten out quickly that they are out on display. I wouldn’t be surprised if most of our members came out to see them in August,” Gentile said of the 4,500 families who are Nature Center members.
He said visitation to the nature center, which is operated by Asheville Parks, Recreation and Cultural Arts Department, is already up more than 5,400 so far this year over last year.
Wilkin Hanaway and Charlotte Burnham were some of the visitors who came to see the wolves with cameras ready.
“I’m a wolf fanatic,” said Hanaway, of Asheville, trying to spot the hiding pups Thursday afternoon. “This is pretty special.”
“Wolves are so similar to dogs, and the bonding that dogs have with humans is probably why we like wolves so much,” said Burnham, who knew the pups had been born in May and was pleasantly surprised to see them out in public. “It would be great if they could go back in the wild.”
Red wolves, native to North Carolina, are a federally endangered species that nearly went extinct. By the 1970s, Ballentine said, there were only 14 pure red wolves remaining in the wild.
“The red wolf is one of the most endangered animals on the entire planet,” she said. “The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service partnered with the Association of Zoos and Aquariums to form the Red Wolf Species Survival Program.”
They took the 14 wolves that were found in the swamps of Lousiana and carefully bred them at centers around the country. In 1987 the first captive-bred red wolves were reintroduced in the Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge near Manteo.
“Now there are more than 300 in zoos and in the wild,” Ballentine said. “It is a conservation success story.”
Pups to remain in Asheville for a year
The wolf pups were born at a special time, Ballentine said. The Nature Center has named 2012 the Year of the Red Wolf.
The puppies, who are about 15 pounds each, will grow to between 50-80 pounds, she said. They usually live for about 15 years. They tend to shy away from both nature center staff and the public, but Ballentine said evidence of chewed-up dog toys and shredded cardboard boxes they are given to play with, show they are acting like domestic dog puppies, Ballentine said, as well as wrestling, running, jumping and hiding from strangers.
Staff give the animals inoculations — unlike red wolves who are tracked in the wild — because they will be living in the nature center. The puppies fed on their mother’s milk for about a month and a half, but are now eating meat and bones. In the wild, red wolves largely feed on rabbits, rodents and deer and are important to keeping the deer population under control, Ballentine said.
The puppies have not yet been named, Gentile said. They are owned by the federal Species Survival Program, and might be sent to other centers around the country, or might eventually be released into the wild. But he said they will remain in Asheville for their adoring public to view, for at least a year.
Together with their parents, and Mayo’s father, Rufus, the nature center is home to seven red wolves, some 2 percent of the entire population.