Red Wolf Sculpture Captures Spirit, Essence of Critically Endangered Species at Texas Zoo | Premium
In the back of the Texas Zoo, Spirit and Carmen spend much of their day hiding from zoo guests and staff.
Lucky visitors may spot the two red wolves lying in the shade of dense vegetation or rushing through the exhibit to have their wild game supper.
But the critically endangered animals remain largely in hiding until night falls and the humans leave. It’s intentional.
“We deal with red wolves in a way that is completely unlike any other species in the zoo. We don’t do any training with them and keep their show as wild as possible, ”said Cari Wittenborn, head of animal health and welfare at the The texas zoo. “They could technically be released at any time, so we have to make sure they’re prepared for life in the wild, so we don’t want them to come near people. We want to make sure they stay hidden.
On Saturday, the Texas Zoo unveiled a cast sculpture donated by the Weiler Woods for Wildlife North Carolina-based conservation group that puts a face on Shy Creatures.
The sculpture of a mother and her puppy is the first thing visitors will see when they go to the Red Wolves Exhibit.
“Anytime you come with kids there’s a chance they won’t see the wolves, so the sculpture really helps capture the essence and spirit of the red wolves,” Wittenborn said.
Sculptor Dale Weiler and his wife, Loti Woods, came from North Carolina for the big reveal. After falling in love with the Cubs at the North Carolina Zoo, Weiler said they felt called upon to contribute to the species’ conservation efforts.
Entitled “Just Settling In,” the original sculpture is made of Utah alabaster, Weiler said. Since then, he and Woods have had casts of the sculpture made for donation to other facilities as part of the Red Wolf Species Survival Program.
The Texas Zoo’s cast is made of steel-reinforced fiberglass and hand painted to replicate the look of the alabaster sculpture, Weiler said.
“We’re now at 30 and we’ll be launching maybe a dozen more, so we’ll have supplied casts to almost every SSP facility in the United States,” he said.
The hope is that the artwork will make people fall in love with the Red Wolves, Weiler said.
As the world’s most endangered canines, red wolves need all the love they can get.
Habitat loss and hunting resulted in the red wolf being declared biologically extinct in the wild in 1980. Over the previous decade, the last 14 remaining wolves were captured and brought to breeding facilities. in order to save the species.
Spirit and Carmen are the descendants of these wolves, as are the approximately 245 red wolves from other zoos, nature centers and breeding facilities that are part of the Red Wolf Species Survival Program.
Run by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums in collaboration with the United States Fish and Wildlife Service, the program aims to increase the genetic diversity of the red wolf population and to repopulate red wolves in the wild.
In 1983, the Texas Zoo was among the first locations chosen to join the Red Wolf Species Survival Program and was the first facility in the state to breed the species, according to attorney records.
Over the next nearly four decades, the zoo has housed several different red wolves and had some very successful breeding seasons.
Spirit and Carmen are not a breeding couple. Spirit is 8 years old and has no health issues suggesting he cannot reproduce, but Carmen had to undergo a full hysterotomy last year due to an infection in her uterus, Wittenborn said.
Carmen is 14 years old, which is the upper limit of her life expectancy. Red wolves live about six to eight years in the wild and up to about 15 years in captivity.
Reintroduction efforts began in 1986 in northeastern North Carolina. The experimental wild population peaked at around 120-130 in 2013 on and around the state’s Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge before it began to drop significantly, according to the Fish and Wildlife Service.
Humans and crossbreeds with coyotes were the main cause of the decline. According to FWS estimates, only about 20 of them remain in the wild.
The Fish and Wildlife Service has come under public scrutiny for issuing lethal capture permits to landowners that allowed them to shoot and kill non-threatening red wolves on their property over the past decade, which corresponds closely to the rapid decline of the wild population.
The ongoing conflict between breeders and environmentalists over the management of the red wolf is not uncommon for large carnivores.
“Anytime you have a large carnivore like this unfortunately it is in the same area where herders raise goats, cattle or chickens, so ranchers automatically think of the cattle and their livelihood.” , Wittenborn said. “There will always be this stigma and it’s part of the struggle for reintroduction. “
In 2018, the Southern Environmental Law Center won a lawsuit brought against the Fish and Wildlife Service on behalf of several organizations who argued that the federal agency violated endangered species law by issuing lethal harvest permits.
The court issued a preliminary injunction that ordered the Fish and Wildlife Service to stop capturing and killing red wolves, and to stop issuing lethal take permits to landowners.
The FWS announced it was suspending the reintroduction of captive-born red wolves in 2015, and stopped its practice of sterilizing coyotes, which conservationists said was key to reducing red wolf hybridization and coyotes.
The FWS lost this costume too. A federal judge has issued a preliminary injunction prohibiting the agency from continuing to prevent releases and ordering it to quickly develop a new plan to restart the reintroduction of captive red wolves into the wild. The halt to lethal capture permits for pest red wolves on private property has also been made permanent.
The reintroduction began again this year with the release of four red wolves at the Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge. Of those four red wolves, three were killed in collisions with vehicles in June, less than a month after being released from acclimatization enclosures, according to the FWS.
In July, the federal agency reported that a previously released red wolf was also found dead following what appeared to be a collision with a vehicle.
In addition to gunfire, collisions with vehicles are the main threat to red wolves in the wild, according to the FWS. These threats and habitat fragmentation have allowed coyotes to expand into population territory, where they can compete for resources, introduce disease, and dilute red wolf genetic lines through hybridization.
While staff at the Texas Zoo must deal with red wolves as if they could be released into the wild, Carmen is unlikely to be released due to her age, Wittenborn said.
“She’s an old maid but she still plays an invaluable role as an ambassador of her kind,” she said. “A lot of people will never see a red wolf in their life. Most of our guests have never even heard of red wolves and we are historically in the land of red wolves, so being able to come here and spot two red wolves is huge.
For conservation efforts to be successful, such public education is essential.
“The spell of the red wolf is endless and keeps turning and it’s still a burning issue,” Wittenborn said. “A lot of conservation work is, yes, taking care of the individuals we have and getting that population back into the wild and healthy, but also making connections with the public and landowners to ensure that the population can thrive. “