Litter of Critically Endangered Red Cubs Surprises Scientists: NPR


There are approximately 250 endangered red wolves in the United States. Recently a litter of four was born in captivity – an unexpected but welcome surprise since the male was considered too old to breed.


For about 30 years, officials in western Kentucky have been leading a red wolf recovery program. Scientists tried to save this critically endangered animal. Recently, they announced some good news. Last spring, a litter of puppies, nicknamed the Fantastic Four, were born, which came as a surprise to the staff. The male wolf that sired them was considered too old. Derek Operle with member station WKMS has more.


DEREK OPERLE, BYLINE: With just over 250 red wolves in the world, births aren’t that common and are usually planned. But at Land Between the Lakes National Recreation Area, 12-year-old Jasper defied expectations by becoming the oldest breeding red wolf on record. He and his companion Ember are the parents of four bouncing baby puppies.


OPERLE: The recreation area’s chief naturalist, John Pollpeter, says red wolves were once at the top of the food chain in the southern United States and were a familiar sight to residents before the late 1800s.

JOHN POLLPETER: When Daniel Boone, Davy Crockett and John James Audubon – when they were painting or writing about a wolf, they were writing about the red wolf.

OPERLE: The red wolf is the most endangered canine in the world. With only about 20 known specimens in the wild, most are in captivity in facilities across the country. With distinctive reddish fur on the neck and paws, a typical adult red wolf is about 4 feet long from tip to tail and weighs around 80 pounds – a bit larger than a German Shepherd. What makes it really special, says Pollpeter, is that it’s only found in the southern United States.

POLLPETER: The red wolf is purely American, but also purely Southern.

OPERLE: Large-scale extermination campaigns, some of which are led by the US government, and habitat loss have been major causes of the species’ population decline. Some experts, like Chris Lasher, coordinator of the Red Wolf Species Survival Plan, link past attitudes toward the red wolf directly to European fairy tales.

CHRIS LASHER: They thought they were — based on all these old stories we hear, like ‘Little Red Riding Hood’ and ‘The Three Little Pigs’ and that sort of thing, that the red wolf was an evil animal who was going to, you know, attack children and attack pets and kill their livestock. And nothing could be further from the truth.

OPERLE: Lasher works at the North Carolina Zoo in Asheboro. He coordinates with scientists and naturalists across the country to plan red wolf breeding programs and restocking efforts. North Carolina has been home to the only wild population of red wolves since wildlife managers began releasing them in 1987. DeLene Beeland has written a book about red wolves, hoping it will spark more discussion about saving the the country’s only native wolf species. She thinks the name should be changed to American Red Wolf.

DELENE BEELAND: Most people know that gray wolves are a European species that crossed over to North America in what we call a biological invasion. But they didn’t evolve here. And I think that’s a very important distinction. You know, he’s America’s red wolf, and we have to save him.

OPERLE: To release more red wolves into the wild, Lasher says greater genetic diversity and a larger population base are needed. That means more captive wolves in places like zoos and recreation areas.

LASHER: We require a minimum of 330 animals in human care to be able to provide animals to multiple recovery locations. Currently we only have room for approximately 260 animals in human care.


OPERLE: Puppies at Land Between the Lakes National Recreation Area will stay with their parents and siblings for at least 18 months. Then they will be transferred to a zoo to be part of a breeding program or begin training to be released into the wild.

For NPR News, I’m Derek Operle in Cadiz, Ky.

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