By Anna Grace Freebersyser
“Red wolves? Yeah, baby!”
A preschooler darts away from his family to get closer to the exhibit faster. He joins a gaggle of other kids howling at the top of their lungs and pressed up to the plexiglass.
That is exactly the kind of enthusiasm Chris Lasher likes to see from visitors at the North Carolina Zoo in Asheboro
The wolves on display are just two of the 245 red wolves in captivity spread out across 40 facilities in the United States. Lasher is responsible for all of them. As the coordinator for the Red Wolf Species Survival Plan, his responsibility is to ensure that the species survives in captivity —a real concern with only 20 left in the wild.
But he has not always been watching them, caring from the sidelines.
Years ago, with the Red Wolf Recovery Program under the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, he pioneered a method of direct fostering and cross fostering red wolves —a way to boost the wild population.
“If a mom has a litter in the wild, and we have a litter under human care that was born about the same time, we can take some of the new litter, born under captivity, and place them with the female in the wild,” he said.
And it went as he had hoped.
“Every single time, she raises them as her own,” he said..
Red wolves are family-oriented. They mate for life and care for their young into maturity. So, when more pups showed up, the moms took it in stride. Sometimes, Lasher finds it hard to wrap his head around..
“Can you imagine, just coming home from work one day and you have two more kids?” he asked.
That part of the program is on hold for now. There are no longer enough wolves in the wild to sustain it.
‘Ambassadors:’ Red wolves in captivity
For now, there is no crawling inside dens. But there is standing, hands in pockets, talking with guests about the red wolves.
The male wolf on exhibit shows some interest when he hears Lasher’s voice, but it’s not until zookeeper Curtis Malott shows up with a purple plastic bucket that the wolves get up.
The male is young and curious, pacing the width of the rocky enclosure. The female is old and cautious, standing on thin legs. She does not take a step until Malott throws a hunk of meat over the fence onto a rock directly in front of her.
“They’re great ambassadors,” Malott said.
The zoo’s red wolves are beautiful examples of their species, even if the female’s coat has faded with age.
“She’s a little bit more about your typical wolf. She’s a little bit more cautious around us,” Malott said.
That fear is natural and makes the captive wolves good candidates for release into the wild, if it’s ever needed.
The male wolf is a different story.
“He wants to be right alongside us, to potentially play with us,” Malott said. “We don’t give him the chance.”
As Malott speaks, the male trots back and forth in front of a water feature and the plexiglass that separates him from his keeper. The female grabs her food and retreats —eyes ever watchful.
Raising big concerns in a small town
Four hours away, in Columbia, North Carolina, there is a red wolf with unseeing, glass eyes in the window of a little yellow building.
Its fur is sun-bleached. Its hide is scraggly and worn. But it’s eye catching all the same, and Kim Wheeler says that’s often what gets people in the door of the Red Wolf Coalition.
Red Wolf Coalition is home to one taxidermied wolf, one taxidermied coyote and one full-time employee: Wheeler. As the executive director, she travels to schools and puts on programs to educate people about red wolves.
She uses the preserved animals to educate guests about the difference between red wolves and coyotes, which they are often mistaken for.
After all, both have pointy ears and noses. The color of their coats can be similar. Both live in Dare, Hyde, Tyrrell, Washington and Beaufort counties in eastern North Carolina. But only one is the most endangered canine in the world.
Columbia is a small town full of hunters. The Red Wolf Coalition is on main street across from Sandy’s Place, one of two restaurants in town. The lunch crowd is full of men in camo. Plenty of women wear the forest pattern too —on baseball caps, hoodies, even purses. Wheeler eats her lunch, greeting neighbors and friends as they go by.
But as friendly as the townsfolk are over lunch, , they’re not always comfortable with her mission.
Once, Wheeler remembers the window wolf catching the eye of a little girl walking past with her mom. The girl was no more than four, Wheeler thinks. As she passed, she pointed, excited, thinking it was a dog.
“And her mother says, ‘No, that’s not a dog, that’s a wolf. We hate wolves,’” Wheeler remembers. Even now, the incident gets to her.
“You’re entitled to your own opinion. But, my first thought was, ‘Why do we want to teach a child to hate anything?’” Wheeler said. “Hate, to me, is a strong word. Her mother has not had any bad experiences with wolves. She just hates them because she feels like they’re eating all the deer.”
But for Wheeler, there’s no reason for hating the wolves that is good enough. She loves them too much. Her office is covered in photos of them, figurines of them, books about them. She even volunteers to feed a pair of wolves, named Manny and Sierra, kept down the road at Pocosin Lakes Wildlife Refuge.
“I always take time just to watch them. And I look and I think, ‘Why are people so afraid of them?’” she says, as she puts her hand to her heart. “They’re beautiful to me.”
To name the wolves or not
Joe Madison pays a visit to those wolves before his return to Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge. He is in charge of the Red Wolf Recovery Program. The program is hoping to put together three wild pairs before mating season ends in March. They’ve been unlucky catching females, despite setting and checking traps for over a month.
Here at Pocosin, he stands inside the pen. There is nothing between him and the wolves.
“You can see how menacing they are, how much they want to tear us apart,” he jokes, motioning to Manny and Sierra. The wolves nearly skim the opposite fence in their eagerness to be far away from the human in their space.
“Don’t tell me the names,” he says, averting his eyes from the plaque where the names of the captive wolves are emblazoned.
“As a wildlife biologist, you don’t name wildlife,” he says. But, Madison admits, he understands why they name them. It’s easier for educational purposes.
After all, the wolves in fairy tales like “Little Red Riding Hood” and “The Three Little Pigs” don’t have names except for their descriptor: Big Bad Wolf. If naming the wolves makes it easier for people to connect with them and want to save the species, that is fine with Madison.
Edited by Meredith Radford and Claire Ruch