CADIZ — A cool wind gives the branches a consistent rustle, early sunlight filters through the overgrowth, and four one-year-olds come out to play.
Nothing like your average toddler, Trace, Piney, Ginger and Sugar sniff and creep, chase off a large crow intent on invading their enclosure, race to the other side, hide behind a hill and cautiously peer out again, huddling together with their mom or dad.
The four red wolf pups, born last spring at the Land Between the Lakes Woodlands Nature Station, came as an unexpected and very valuable litter to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Red Wolf Recovery Program.
The four have all developed distinct personalities, according to John Pollpeter, the nature station’s lead naturalist.
Trace, for example, is the most adventurous.
“He’s been adventurous since he was little. He started coming out of the den at three weeks old,” Pollpeter said.
“Piney, he’s a big giant goofball.”
Ginger is especially feisty.
“Even when she had her eyes closed and her ears closed, she was the one who was growling at us.”
Sugar is “the shy, sweet one. She kind of hangs out in the den.”
Born to a young female, Ember, who was brought in as a companion to then-13-year-old Jasper (geriatric in wolf years and thought to be unable to reproduce), the wolves carry very significant genes, as Jasper was then considered the seventh most valuable wolf in the program.
“Because of Jasper’s status, all four of them are important genetically,” Pollpeter said.
Sugar and Ginger, though, are now considered more valuable than their father.
Red wolves — of which less than 20 exist in the wild, and only a few hundred of which live in captivity — are so rare that young wolves are sent to breeding sites across the country in order to help repopulation efforts in captivity.
Pollpeter said facilities like the St. Louis Zoo and Arkansas State University have recently developed facilities to participate in the recovery program, and could be destinations for some of the four.
“They’re trying to create more places to be able to breed them … to build up that population, particularly in captivity,” he said.
Those destinations will likely be determined this summer, with the young wolves sent to their new placements in the following months.
Wolves are often rotated between programs to promote genetic diversity, though Pollpeter said LBL has never received back a wolf it sent to another facility.
“We’ve had ones come here that were related to ones we’ve had,” he said, and programs send out updates on their wolves to their previous placements.
For Pollpeter, it’s impossible not to get emotionally attached to the pack, especially considering how humanlike some of their behaviors can appear.
“You throw food in (the enclosure), and Jasper will take one for himself, but then he will go around and make sure that every puppy and Ember have an equal portion,” Pollpeter said.
Likewise, Ember can throw a glance like anyone’s mom and get instant obedience.
“If she sees a stranger, all she does is curl her lip, and those puppies are gone.”
Despite setbacks for the red wolf population since even the bleak starting point of the recovery program, Pollpeter sees encouraging signs and said the wolf program has been significant in developing plans for other endangered species that have made comebacks.
“What they’ve had to do is adapt and be innovative, and because of that I have hope for the red wolf.”
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