In their darkest days, only five Mexican gray wolves—including just one female—could be found in the wild. Professional biologists at the nation’s leading zoos and other wildlife facilities helped pull Mexican gray wolves back from the brink of extinction by creating a captive breeding program which now involves over 50 facilities across the United States and Mexico.
Launching the Program
The breeding program got off to a rough start. The only female—who was pregnant at the time of capture—gave birth to four males and one female, but the female pup died four days later. Fortunately, in 1981, at the Endangered Wolf Center (formerly Wild Canid Survival and Research Center) in Eureka, Missouri, this wild-caught female gave birth to one male and three female pups, all of which survived and reproduced in captivity.
By 1983 the captive breeding program was more firmly established with the birth of three litters totaling 15 pups. This breeding line of Mexican wolves is called the “McBride” lineage for the name of the trapper who caught the founders. Only one of the four males and the female successfully bred in captivity, and the unknown wild mate of the captured pregnant female is considered a third founder of the McBride lineage.
There were two other breeding lines of what were thought by some to be Mexican wolves, one in the U.S. called the “Ghost Ranch” line and one in Mexico called the “Aragón” line. Thanks to DNA testing, a team of experts was able to confirm that these wolves were in fact pure Mexican gray wolves, and these wolves were then included in the breeding program.
Today’s wild wolves and all of those remaining in captivity can be traced to the seven Mexican gray wolves—four males and three females—that survived the U.S. government’s extermination program.
Captive breeding has continued, and as of July 2008 there were 327 Mexican wolves living in 47 captive wolf breeding or holding facilities in the United States and Mexico, many of which are zoos.
Raising them Wild
A Visit to the Captive Breeding Center that Started it All.
by Susan Lyndaker Lindsey, Ph.D.
Forested hillsides full of raccoons, turkey, deer and rodents. Ponds that occasionally host nesting ducks or are covered with ice. Large family packs of wolves cooperatively hunting small game, feeding on deer, howling, rearing successive generations of young destined to repopulate the Southwest.
This is the reality of a captive breeding facility that not only took in the small remnant population of wild Mexican gray wolves but became the birth site of the first lobos conceived and born in captivity from wild stock. This is the captive breeding facility that produced many of the wolves that have successfully transitioned back to their homeland—wolves that hunt appropriate prey, avoid people, and raise their young in family packs the way that they were raised while still in their temporary home.
Once a week the enclosures are cleaned. Two women enter and work their way around the acreage in a circular pattern. The wolf pack of twenty watches warily and moves ahead of the women, staying as far way from them as the acreage will allow. These are the wolves reared in a captive breeding facility. They do not trust or approach people. They take what help the people offer but prefer to be left alone to live the lives of wolves.
Annually the wolves are captured for veterinary checks—they send up alarm howls when the veterinarian reaches the gate of the facility several miles away. They howl again as the staff enter the capture equipment shed. They avoid the capture team as it enters their large enclosure. Their natural avoidance of people is used to move them into smaller sub enclosures. The target wolf cowers while approached by three women. It is pinned down while the veterinarian gives it inoculations and takes a blood sample—then the wolf is released.
The wolf waits for a moment, giving a sideways glance toward the staff members. Is this a trick or an opportunity? Away the wolf races into the hills of its temporary home. Later it rolls to remove the unwanted human scent.
The wolves of the captive breeding facility are wary of the humans who provide food and water but also bring the pain of inoculations, confinement, and separation from their wolf family. The wolves use their legs to run, to avoid, and to hide. They howl in reunion and rejoice when the people leave. The hillsides belong to the wolves again.
This is a captive breeding facility. A halfway home to freedom. Here is where lobos recovered in numbers sufficient to begin their return to wild lives in the homeland of their ancestors. This is a captive breeding facility rearing wolves that distrust and avoid people, that know how to hunt, that have lived in large multi-generational family packs. This is a captive breeding facility whose wolves have successfully made the transition to free-roaming wild lives again and again, hunting appropriate prey, avoiding their nemesis—people, and surviving to rear their young who strive to repopulate the Southwest. This is the Endangered Wolf Center.
The first litter conceived and born in captivity was fathered by Don Diego. His son Francisco fathered the male pups that led the Campbell Blue and Hawks Nest packs to freedom. Francisco’s sons and daughters would lead the packs that would follow in later months and years. Today all packs trace back to the hillsides of Wild Canid at least through their ancestors, if they themselves were not born there.
I held the pups for their pup checks while their father alarm howled for the hills to hear. I saw those pups grow up stalking and hunting with their father in their large family packs. I watched those pups chase pieces of ice across a frozen pond while their parents looked on with expressions that could only be interpreted as amusement. I heard the parents howl the nights after we shipped out those grown pups to lead the way back to a truly wild life. These are the wolves of Wild Canid; these are the wolves of the Southwest.
Author’s Note: A wildlife biologist and behaviorist by training, I greatly value the contributions of all of the captive breeding facilities of the Mexican Wolf Species Survival Plan and the willingness of all cooperators to think of the species above all else. With their steadfast commitment to the quality of the releasable wolves they rear, the lobo will make a successful recovery in our lifetimes, if we will only give them the support they require in the wild—space, time, and seclusion.
Heritage Park Zoo
Navajo Nation Zoological and Botanical Park
The Phoenix Zoo
Southwest Wildlife Conservation CenterScottsdale
California Wolf Center
The Living Desert
Cheyenne Mountain Zoological Park
Mesker Park Zoo Evansville
Sedgwick County Zoo
Zoo New England
Binder Park Zoo
Minnesota ZooApple Valley
Wildlife Science Center
Endangered Wolf Center
Dickerson Park Zoo
Alameda Park Zoo
Albuquerque Biological Park
Hillcrest Park Zoo
Living Desert State Park
Wildlife West Nature Park
Wolf Conservation Center
Cincinnati Zoo & Botanical Garden
Cleveland Metroparks Zoo
Oklahoma City Zoo
Lehigh Valley Zoo
El Paso Zoo
Fossil Rim Wildlife Center
Puebla, Puebla Mexico
Museo del Desierto
Saltillo, Coah, Mexico
Secretariat of Environment and Natural Resources
México, D.F. Mexico
Zoológico “Alfonso L. Herrera” del Bosque de Chapultepec
México, D.F. Mexico
Zoológico de León
León, Guanajuato Mexico
Guadalajara, Jalisco Mexico
Cd. Victoria, Tamaulipas Mexico
Toluca, México Mexico