Howls. Panting. Nervousness. All these actions are typical of the Chattanooga Nature Center’s red wolves. In three large enclosures the wolf pack holds fast to its last stand in captivity. For the most part, they’ve run out of places to live in the wild, and there are only a few hundred red wolves left.
The day I visited they were especially excited. Running around their enclosures, tongues dangling happily, they embodied wild ecstasy. The wolves were treated to venison, courtesy of a hunter, for their meal. They ate like wolves should eat.
Tish Gailmard, wildlife curator at the center, told me, “We work closely with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and they advise us with our exhibit and breeding. We have three enclosures with six adults and they’ve bred twice now.” Gailmard proudly showed the plaque won by the center. In 2007, the Chattanooga Nature Center received the North American Conservation Award for red wolf recovery by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums.
Red wolves are far more endangered than their gray cousins in the Yellowstone area. Like the Mexican wolf, whose total numbers are only in the double digits, their hope for survival lies mostly in captivity. Wild restoration efforts have been difficult.
I spoke with Montana State Representative Mike Phillips, project leader on the Yellowstone Restoration Project in 1995, and who led the biologists in the Alligator River red wolf restoration project in North Carolina, and also in the ill-fated Smoky Mountain restoration effort in the early ’90s.
Phillips explained to me that one of the greatest problems the wolves face in keeping their gene pool strong is hybridization with coyotes. “Without the presence of intensive management to keep wolves and coyotes apart and minimize hybridization, I don’t know if any area in the Southeast can support reintroduction in the wild,” he said.
The Alligator River project is still running with several wolves still living and thriving in the refuge. The Smoky Mountain effort, however, fell apart because of lack of prey in the area. After a high mortality rate with litters born within the packs, and many questionable, potentially hybrid pups, the project was cancelled in 1998. The remaining surviving wolves were removed and placed in captivity.
Red wolves are not the fluffy gray canids that grace the cover of calendars in Walmart. They are a smaller, cinnamon-colored ancestor that shares many characteristics in behavior, social structure within packs, and of course, diet. The gray wolf, on its turf of the Greater Yellowstone ecosystem, will take down much bigger prey than the red wolves are capable of overpowering. Moose, elk, bison and mule deer sustain wolf diets in the Northern Rockies while whitetail deer and raccoons make up the diet of this smaller cousin.
These misunderstood predators have been killed, trapped, burned alive and otherwise tortured to the point of extinction. The way a healthy wolf population takes part in the symbiosis of an ecosystem is invaluable. The wolves take down the old and sick members of deer and elk herds, making the bloodlines stronger by leaving only the strongest members left to breed. They also eat smaller animals such as beavers, stopping destructive dam building and loss of vegetation around riparian areas.
Jeremy Hooper, a UTC graduate and Nature Center employee since 2010, is excited about his role at the center and ready to educate the public about wolves. “Let us be the beginning,” he said. “Come down to the center and we’ll show you the role we play in conserving red wolves and what incredible animals they are.”
Seeing a red wolf in the wild is a true gift, but you would have to go to Northeastern North Carolina to the Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge—and get really lucky. Otherwise, take the much shorter drive to the Chattanooga Nature Center. On April 30, 2011, two females were born at the nature center. The pups, now half grown, are healthy and happy. Autumn is the perfect time to view the wolves. You can also view the bobcat, a woodchuck, and several other mammals and reptiles. Take a good long look around, and see what can be learned from the wild. Visit their website at chattanooganaturecenter.org.