Mothering the Red Wolf



Can Cross-Fostering Save This Once-Technically-Extinct Species?

Pocosin is a loanword from Eastern Algonquian, meaning “swamp on a hill.” Modern Americans aren’t generally fond of swamps, except as cheap real estate begging to be drained and developed (case in point, Manhattan). As a result, there are few pocosins left on our continent, but those that remain often function almost like islands today, offering sanctuary for species that would otherwise vanish along with their habitat. The Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge on North Carolina’s Albemarle Peninsula is such a place, and the American Red Wolf is such a species.

The range of the Red Wolf once stretched from Texas to New York. In 1980, the species was declared extinct in the wild. Now, according to Sarah Holaday, Director of Animal Care & Conservation for the Endangered Wolf Center in Eureka, Missouri, the Alligator River refuge is the last place on earth where the American Red Wolf may be found in the wild — approximately 15 at last count, making the species the world’s most endangered wolf. 

Brothers, Winston and Cabara, are Mexican wolves that were born together in 2021 at the Endangered Wolf Center.
Brothers, Winston and Cabara, are Mexican wolves that were born together in 2021 at the Endangered Wolf Center. — Photo Courtesy of Michelle Steinmeyer, Endangered Wolf Center

The Endangered Wolf Center is a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization founded in 1971 by the silverback male of early environmentalist television, Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom host Marlin Perkins.

A major factor in the century-long eradication of many wolf species is the fearful claim that wolves drastically impact livestock. For decades, the data have proved otherwise.

One of the reasons for the Red Wolf’s nearly impossible survivor status is that most people aren’t even aware that the Red Wolf exists. Although human intervention and cooperation can be part of the solution for restoring species in their original ecosystems, we can’t protect a species we’ve never even heard of. (Right?)

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A major factor in the century-long eradication of many wolf species is the fearful claim that wolves drastically impact livestock. For decades, the data have proved otherwise. In addition to bounty-hunting, poaching, poisoning, and trapping, the inexorable crawl of habitat loss has been especially deadly for the Red Wolf. Unlike foxes and coyotes, other small canids which may easily be confused with the Red Wolf, Canis rufus is a slender, shy animal that does not adapt easily to human ways. And unlike Coyotes, with which they easily interbreed, Red Wolves have not developed a taste for house cats and city rats, nor have they adapted to eating human garbage. Thus, human expansion and development which wipes out their prey — so-called nuisance species, like raccoons, rabbits, and white-tail deer — wipes out the wolves as well.

An American red wolf howls.
An American red wolf howls. — Photo by Michelle Steinmeyer

As of October 2022, Holaday explained to me over Zoom, there are 238 American Red Wolves within 47 managed care facilities in the USA, with 11 at the Center in Missouri.

Dedicated to saving canid species from extinction, the Center’s innovative work with another wolf species, the Mexican wolf, entails a delicate bait-and-switch called cross-fostering, where newborn wolf-pups conceived and born in managed care are passed off to a nursing mother in the wild to rear as her own. It's a technique that has also been used with the American Red Wolf in the past.

This strategy may remind bird fanciers of the behavior of the cuckoo, a brood parasite that builds no nest of her own. Ornithologists have recorded the cuckoo mother waiting for the nest’s builder — often a robin or warbler — to briefly depart, then using the opportunity to swoop in and lay one or more of her own eggs in the open nest. To make the ruse work, she’ll often tip out one or more of the host’s eggs or hatchlings to keep the egg-count consistent. The duped bird-parents diligently feed the cuckoo fledglings, which grow freakishly large and eventually fly off. 

Pups born in managed care are placed into a wild litter, allowing experienced foster parents to teach them how to thrive in the wild. These pups have an advantage, since they are taught from an early age how to navigate the landscape and hunt successfully.

The wolf pups’ introduction to their foster families is somewhat different. Through the American Red Wolf SAFE cross-fostering program, newborn Red Wolf pups conceived and birthed within managed care facilities are hurriedly introduced into the lair of wild — completely unsocialized, untamed, unused to humans — wolf-parents in North Carolina, the very last scrap of what remains of this wolf’s once-sprawling range. 

Note the plural: parents. Understanding this is essential to breaking the wolf code. Male Red Wolves support their mates during pup-rearing, and stick around during the youngsters’ weaning, and long after. In fact, Red Wolves pair-bond monogamously for life, as far as modern researchers can tell. (“There is no divorce court in wolf-world,” Holaday wryly observes.) Pups born from previous litters tend to linger with their parents, too, assisting with catching prey and guarding newborns, although offspring may leave to form their own packs upon maturity when food-supply and territory grow tight. 

An American red wolf pup stands between his parents, with a playful sibling nearby.
An American red wolf pup stands between his parents, with a playful sibling nearby. — Photo by Victoria Ziglar

Strong family ties form the glue of the Red Wolf pack, and this nuclear family configuration is common across the varying sub-species of wolf. This fact negates the hoary concepts of the “lone wolf” (wolves are highly social within their species and subspecies) as mindless eating-machine, and other false descriptives that have followed wolves from old Northern European fairy tales into their near extinction in the modern day. 

Holaday says, “Pup fostering is a technique that has been used since 2002 to help boost the genetics and population numbers of the American Red Wolf. Pups born in managed care are placed into a wild litter, allowing experienced foster parents to teach them how to thrive in the wild. These pups have an advantage, since they are taught from an early age how to navigate the landscape and hunt successfully. Additionally, adding pups from different parents into the litter increases the genetic variability of the wild population, which is critical to success.”

Holaday cautions, “As with any conservation technique, there are challenges. In order to be able to foster into the wild, there must be a wild pair that gives birth to a litter, as well as a pair in managed care that gives birth around the same timeframe. When there are fewer than twenty Red Wolves left in the wild, the chances of a female successfully breeding and giving birth are extremely low. That is why adult American Red Wolves have been released in recent years, in addition to fostering.”  

But even with Holaday’s caveats, the introduction of the Red Wolf pups into an existing wild litter has been surprisingly successful. In total, 31 pups have been fostered from managed care into wild litters. The most recent Red Wolf foster was completed in 2021 with four pups from the Akron Zoo. (In 2021, two American Red Wolves born and raised at the Endangered Wolf Center were also released as adults into the wild.) At present, none of the introduced pups have been rejected or harmed by their adoptive parents.

A new American red wolf father and his pup show affection and bask in the sun together.
A new American red wolf father and his pup show affection and bask in the sun together. — Photo by Victoria Ziglar

Red Wolves breed once a year between January and March, and discerning pregnancy among Red Wolves in the sanctuary is difficult, as signs are not usually visible until near the end of the two-month gestation period. Mating behavior at the Center is closely observed and immediately flagged, followed by tireless monitoring until pregnancy is certain and the pups are born. A rather brief gestation of 63 days — nine weeks, no more than that of a domesticated cat — offers only a small window for coordination with a corresponding wild pair also about to welcome new pups. 

Since puppy season is the same time each year (mid-April to mid-May), the SAFE program works closely with U.S. Fish and Wildlife to determine if any of the potential litters could be fostered into a wild den. A dedicated team of volunteers observes the breeding pairs in human care to get an estimated due date while USFWS monitors the breeding pairs in the wild so that fostering can be timed appropriately. As Holaday says, “The stars have to align.”

Separation of the newborns from their birth-mother underscores the strength of the species’ familial bonds, and well as the wolves’ dogged (sorry!) determination to raise their litters in spite of trauma. Holaday explains, “Traditionally, we don’t take the entire litter. We usually leave two pups for [the birth-mother] to nurse and raise. The Center's wolf parents will run away and ‘alarm-howl’ (a specific type of sharp vocalization used to alert the pack of danger) from a distance while we are pulling pups for fostering. Once we have the pups we are transporting to the wild, our team retreats and keeps noise and human disturbance down to a minimum for the rest of the week. It usually takes less than a couple of hours before the mother will go back to her den and continue nursing the remaining pups.”

Jimmy Parsons, Education Manager for The Endangered Wolf Center, shares the details of the urgent relay process, throughout which handling of the wolves is kept to an absolute minimum, to prevent any softening of the Red Wolf’s natural aloofness: “Newborn pups from a litter in human care are transported to the recovery area on donated private flights with Animal Care and Vet staff on board. While this is occurring, U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service [staff] locate the wild den site, and their presence causes the wild mother and father wolves to leave the area.” 

Brothers, Winston and Cabara, are Mexican wolves that were born together in 2021 at the Endangered Wolf Center.
Brothers, Winston and Cabara, are Mexican wolves that were born together in 2021 at the Endangered Wolf Center. — Photo by Michelle Steinmeyer

The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service team then receives the pups born in human care, performs a quick exam on the pups in the wild litter, and then puts all of the pups (both wild and from human care) back into the den, after having dusted the captivity-bred pups with dirt from around the wild mother’s den to camouflage their alien scent. After the humans leave, the wolf mother and father return and will care for all of the pups. U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service personnel also set up trail cameras to monitor the litter and the parents, and hopefully get photos or videos of the pups after they start coming out of the den.

The Endangered Wolf Center’s Jimmy Parsons refers to a days-old Red Wolf pup as “…this cute potato-sized ball of hope, released back into the wild.” The promise and potential heartbreak are palpable. But unlike the adorable stuffed toys on the Center’s website, these animals are not to be cuddled, and it’s essential to their survival that we begin to see them as they truly are: not monsters, not pets, but wild, free, and wholly indifferent to our whims and wishes.

So far, the adoptive wild wolves do not object to humans entering their den, which may surprise anyone who has tangled with a mother animal and her newborns. Even a formerly docile pet may bare tooth and claw when well-meaning humans appear to threaten a litter (a lesson I’ve learned many times from kitten rescue). The wild wolves’ lack of defensive response does not signal lack of loyalty to their pups, but is simply evidence of their true wildness.

Parsons comments, “Wild animals are naturally shy of people. Domesticated animals have lost that instinct, and therefore are more comfortable exhibiting defensive behaviors towards people.”

“The wild pair is not restrained in any way,” he continues. “They run away from the den and stay away until humans leave the area. Wolves hide their den and pups extremely well and therefore hope that interlopers can’t find their den, rather than stay and defend it. Defensive behavior in the wild can lead to wounds which can get infected and become lethal, so it is safer for the parents to run away and come back after the threat has passed.”

Wags may theorize that, like any mother with newborns, the wild mother is just too damn tired to protest the sudden increase in the size of her litter. The joke around the Center is that Red Wolves can’t count. But given the fact that chimps, chickens, cuckoos, and even ants apparently are able to add and subtract (ants actually perform calculations approaching trigonometry), this seems unlikely. More probable: the wild pair simply decides to accept and nurture the outsiders. Those of us who count wolves as ancestors, whether Roman or Eastern Band Cherokee, may anthropomorphize and wonder if this willingness is evidence of the creature’s innate understanding of how dire its future portends to be.

Aster, an American red wolf at the Endangered Wolf Center, gave birth to three boys in 2022.
Aster, an American red wolf at the Endangered Wolf Center, gave birth to three boys in 2022. — Photo by Michelle Steinmeyer

And if the wolf disappears, everything else in the region goes downhill. “The Red Wolf is a keystone species,” Parsons explains. “They represent the point at which so many species interact. If they are removed, the whole ecosystem collapses. Implodes. Herbivores overpopulate and nibble the vegetation down to the dirt. This critical collapse can reduce fertile, complex places to sterile, arid wasteland where only a few remaining species can eke out a survival, a survival which can’t last.”

Regina Mossotti worked with the Endangered Wolf Center prior to accepting her current role as Vice President of Animal Care at the St. Louis Zoo, one of the many organizations that partner with the Center (others include United States Fish & Wildlife Services, Arizona Game and Fish Department, New Mexico Department of Game & Fish, Association of Zoos & Aquariums (AZA), Wolf Conservation Center, and Wolf Haven International). 

Via phone call, Mossotti observes, “Wolves are emotionally polarizing, more so than an endangered bird or butterfly or flower. Psychologists might call it a case of projection: everything that we as humans don’t like about ourselves, we project onto wolves.” But  bedtime stories of huffing, puffing, red-hooded granddaughter-devouring monsters  notwithstanding, Mossotti describes wolves as “scaredy-cats” who fear humans and will go to great lengths to avoid us.

Simply leaving the Red Wolf alone won’t save it. What’s most compelling about the cross-fostering success is that it relies upon the very qualities in a wolf’s personality that generations of hunters, ranchers, farmers, lobbyists, and storytellers contest: loyalty, love, and lupine compassion for seemingly orphaned pups that appear out of nowhere. 

Jimmy Parsons refers to a days-old Red Wolf pup as “…this cute potato-sized ball of hope, released back into the wild.” The promise and potential heartbreak are palpable. But unlike the adorable stuffed toys on the Center’s website, these animals are not to be cuddled, and it’s essential to their survival that we begin to see them as they truly are: not monsters, not pets, but wild, free, and wholly indifferent to our whims and wishes. It’s true that the Red Wolf needs us now, but only because of the harrowing damage we’ve inflicted. 

All Mexican wolves alive today can trace their roots back to the Endangered Wolf Center.
All Mexican wolves alive today can trace their roots back to the Endangered Wolf Center. — Photo by Michelle Steinmeyer

The restoration of wolves in general is good news for ecosystems. The successful 1995 reintroduction of gray wolves into Yellowstone National Park has begun to undo seven decades of damage following the erasure of the original population. Although the ever-opportunistic Coyote quickly rose to the occasion to usurp the crown of the Park’s apex predator, Coyotes are too small and solitary — they rarely hunt in large, efficient packs like wolves — to manage elk, or even adult deer. As a result, the herbivores bred unchecked and ate available vegetation to the ground, leading to a staggering loss of biodiversity across a wide range of taxa

With wolves back in the ecosystem, plants of all kinds have returned to Yellowstone, attracting essential pollinators. The integrity of the soil has changed for the better, due to the reduction of damage by ungulates. Rivers are returning to their ancient paths once again, allowing for sensitive wildlife (including many varieties of long-absent fish, frogs, snakes, crawfish, snails, muskrats, otters, wild ducks, herons, and the aquatic larvae of dragonflies and damselflies) to flourish once again.

And while the last-minute restoration of this misunderstood and persecuted species is invaluable on its own, perhaps the rescue of the Red Wolf also holds the key to a deeper understanding of our planet, in which even fleas, leeches, and mosquitoes earn their place in the still-emerging portrait of our precious biosphere.

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When a new polluter came to Sharon Lavigne’s already industry-heavy community of color, she rallied her neighbors, fought back, and won. Read the story.

At a September exhibition in Paris at a private home, artist Morgane Porcheron showed me a faded Converse shoe spilling with seashells, rubble, and seaweed. This small work of art pulled me into a scene of forgotten belongings sloshing in the waves. I asked Porcheron what inspired this piece, and she launched into how she came up with the idea while strolling down the beach in Normandy. She accidentally knocked over a wooden board, causing the debris resting on it to spill into her old shoes. This piece was a tribute, Porcheron said, to what is rejected by the sea. Read the story.

Behind a house in sunny San Diego sits a 70 square-foot shed. If passersby were to take notice, they’d likely assume it stores the usual things that go into a shed: tools, lawn equipment, cardboard boxes filled with items that are simultaneously unimportant and irreplaceable. No one would suspect that those four little walls contain a solar-powered coffee roastery for keeping local residents happily caffeinated. Read the story.

Newtown Creek’s dirty history and restoration inspires art. Read the story.

A couple opens their Arizona-based net-zero home to guest speakers, vegan potluck, and conversation to help others discover the abundance of a plant-based diet. Read the story.

Food waste thrown out with general waste has plummeted to less than three percent. How did South Korea become a world leader in managing food waste? Donghyuk Jang, a resident of Goyang city in South Korea’s capital area, takes a bag of food waste twice every week to the apartment block garbage bin. This is no ordinary trash can, however. When Jang scans his residential card, the lid opens. He dumps the bag’s contents into the bin, and pushes the ‘close’ button. A friendly voice says, “You have thrown out 2,350 grams. 148 won [11 US cents] has been deducted.” Read the story.

Most of us don’t consider disposable menstrual products, such as pads and tampons, when we think about plastic pollution. But in Europe alone, an estimated 590,000 tons of menstrual waste is generated annually. And a culture of shame around menstruation is, in part, responsible for the dramatic increase in disposable, plastic-based menstrual products. Plastic tampon applicators were introduced because early 20th-century doctors and society were squeamish about girls and women having to come into contact with their menstrual blood during insertion. Read the story.

Despite seeing it everywhere and using it on a daily basis, most of us give little thought to signage. These details on the landscape of our lives — the signs that glow above storefronts, or guide us to our train platform, or let us know we’re at the door of Conference Room II — have such ubiquitous influence that we notice them as markers of a destination rather than standalone objects. Read the story.

Downtown Pittsburgh, often called the Golden Triangle, borders the confluence of three major rivers: the Ohio River from the west, the Allegheny River from the northeast, and the Monongahela River from the southeast. Read the story.

“What he’s doing there is called wallowing,” says Craig Thoms, one arm slung over the steering wheel of his truck as we watch a bison roll around on the ground, hooves flailing, dust rising in small clouds. Read the story

It’s 5 a.m. and the sun is rising over thousands of sea turtles on the beach at Playa Ostional in Costa Rica. Read the story.

When we heard about Playa Viva’s turtle sanctuary and learned that we could participate in the collection and transfer of turtle eggs, we hardly believed that anything could safely emerge from those waves. Read the story.

Costume-reared chicks are key to establishing a self-sufficient non-migratory flock of the endangered species. Read the story.

An agrovoltaic test facility in Longmont, Colorado gives a family farm a prized microclimate and the financing to grow. Read the story. 

The Repair Café and Thing Library deliver the tools a local community needs to fix our throwaway culture. Read the story.

The Ridges Sanctuary began as one botanist’s initiative to protect orchids. Nearly a century later, the land trust remains one of the most biologically diverse ecosystems in the entire Midwest. Read the story.

A group of righteous neighbors in a New York suburb is on a mission to protect a historic forest. Read the story.

Millions of pounds of textiles from across Southwestern Ontario are being recycled in innovative ways. Read the story.

Raíz de Fondo in Baja California Sur’s capital city of La Paz is planting gardens, one mind at a  time. Read the story.

New edible spray gives Canadian cucumber producers the chance to ditch plastic wrap. Read the story.

These weaponized 3D-printed fake tortoises spray out noxious methyl anthranilate when pecked. Read the story.

Two Canadians help bring Indigenous and non-Indigenous communities together. Read the story. 

The collection in Forks, Washington, showcases forty years of beachcombing finds, from beautiful glass floats to parts of a jet engine. Read the Story. 

Can recreation replace the state's traditionally coal-powered economy? Read the story.

The South Portland, Maine retailer is part of the ‘refill revolution’ around the country. Read the story

A former oil drilling site, Banning Ranch is nearing transformation into a nature preserve. Read the story.

Kemp’s ridley sea turtles return to the ocean after being cold-stranded and undergoing specialized rehabilitation. Read the story.

As the Western United States and other arid climates around the world face increased wildfire activity, many civilians are forced to flee. Wildland firefighters run toward the flames. Read the story.

A new facility in Santa Barbara hopes to divert over 85% of the county’s organic waste. Is there still a place for community composting programs? Read the story.

How university students re-imagined parking spaces in the heart of downtown Toronto. Read the story.

What you didn’t know about ladybugs, butterflies, bees and hummingbirds, and how you can be a good global citizen by planting for them. Read the story.

The iconic park celebrates its 150th birthday this year with plans to protect it for another 150 years. Read the story.

An ambitious (and replicable) program in Vermont turns surplus food into delicious meals for the hungry, ensuring that nothing goes to waste. Read the story

Once considered unswimmable, the Willamette has found new life as a popular swimming and kayaking destination. Read the story.


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Victoria Thomas
Victoria Thomas
Victoria Thomas is a lifestyle writer in Los Angeles, originally from the Bronx. Her articles about art, culture, food, travel, and caterpillars (which she’s obsessed with) have been published in The Los Angeles Times, O The Oprah Magazine, and Martha Stewart Living.
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