BY COLIN WARREN-HICKS
A little boy stood beside his mother listening to the burble of a short waterfall, when it emerged out of shadows cast by sweetgum trees.
“I can see that dog,” the boy said, pointing.
And it could see him as well. For after hearing the little voice, its furry face rotated toward him in one sharp swivel, its long ears folding forward to home in on the voice, the little shuffling feet, the faint crinkle his coat made when he let go his mom’s hand.
When the boy realized “that dog” was looking at him too, he was delighted.
The boy’s eyes widened in excitement. The animal’s yellow eyes narrowed.
“That’s not a dog,” the boy’s mother said, touching his shoulder. “It’s a wolf.”
The wolf is one of the two newly arrived red wolves at the Museum of Life and Science and is referred to as No. 1803, its Red Wolf Species Survival Plan (SSP) studbook number. He moved to the museum mid-November to meet his new mate, No. 2062.
The pair moved to the museum after a a family of six red wolves, previously housed in Durham, were relocated to a one-acre habitat at the Wolf Conservation Center of South Salem, New York.
The male has sired two litters, but the female has not yet bred. It’s important the two met, given that their species is on the brink of extinction.
About 230 red wolves survive in captivity as part of a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s recovery program and the Red Wolf SSP.
The wilds of eastern North Carolina are the last place on the planet where red wolves roam free, but only 25 of them.
“As a North Carolina resident, I think it’s important to protect something that is so unique to our state,” said Sherry Samuels, the museum’s Animal Department director.
Red wolves are native to North America’s East Coast and once lived as far south as the Mexican border in Texas, as far west as Oklahoma City and hunted prey in northern lands surrounding Poughkeepsie, New York.
Their demise coincides with human expansion and drainage of wetlands for agriculture, dam construction, as well as hunting and predator-control efforts at the state and federal levels.
The red wolf was first listed as a threatened species in 1966. By 1975, it was thought the only way to save it was to capture and breed as many as possible. Forty wolves were caught and brought to the Point Defiance Zoo and Aquarium in Tacoma, Washington. By 1986, their numbers had doubled to 80.
Between 1987 and 1992, 42 red wolves were released into Dare County’s Alligator River National National Wildlife Refuge.
Christian Hunt, Southeast Program associate for the conservation advocacy organization Defenders of Wildlife, said by 2007 there were about 150 red wolves in the eastern part of the state. “At that point species recovery efforts were a great success,” he said.
But, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service reversed course on the program, “largely as a result from pressure from key land owners,” Hunt said. “Key staff members were reassigned, and poaching enforcement measures were pretty much eliminated. … A blind eye was turned toward poaching.”
North Carolina has lost 75 of its wild red wolves in the past three years, making the red wolf the most endangered canine species in the world.
This fall, U.S. Sen. Thom Tillis, R-N.C., submitted a provision to a U.S. Senate committee – for inclusion in the Senate Appropriations Committee’s $32 billion spending bill for the Department of Interior and environmental agencies – encouraging the end of the 30-year effort to save red wolves from extinction.
This is the first time in over a year that either of the museum’s wolves have had contact with another member of their species.
He is 7 years old. She is a 3 and was removed from her sisters last year. “Groups of female wolves don’t typically do well together,” Samuels said.
Museum staff were a little worried about how she’d handle the transition, but it has gone well.
“When we introduced these two, they sniffed each other. They sat with each other. They’ve been calm and interested in each other,” Samuels said.
At night, they’ve shared a den, a cave-like space 4 feet in diameter built into an earthen mound.
“So you can do nothing but really snuggle, when you’re stuck in a small space like that,” Samuels said.
“Which is a great, great thing for the end of the year, when breeding season is more heightened and hormones are changing,” she added. “In January and February, hopefully, there will be more attraction that’s seen.”
Red wolves’ fur is a medley of browns, whites, thin black streaks and red colorings most prominent over the top of muscular back legs.
The museum’s wolves take turns resting on flat patches on top of a little hill and above a small rock face. She seems to enjoy the shady places more than he does. He always watches her, ever aware of her movements and distance.
They both notice the smiling human children several quick strides away.