Pity the other carnivores: bears, tigers, wolves. They’re apex predators, like us. Nothing hunts these creatures except us. We pursue them as trophies, trap them as pests, because they eat what most of us eat—meat.
Take the Mexican gray wolf. That is, if you can find one. It’s small for a wolf, about the size of a German shepherd. It’s also the most endangered wolf in North America. In fact, it’s the most endangered mammal in North America. It once roamed from central Mexico across much of the southwestern United States, but from the end of the 19th century onward, the Mexican gray was hunted and trapped to the brink of extinction. First, settlers came with their cattle, displacing elk and deer, the wolves’ preferred prey. So the wolves naturally went after the cattle, and the ranchers, just as naturally, went after the wolves.
Dogs are basically wolves that followed us home about 10,000 years ago, becoming less shy with people and learning to work—to hunt, to herd, to guard—in exchange for a share of our meat, rather than vying for it. Meanwhile, the rest of the wolves, the fierce and lordly wild animals, became shyer of people. As the number of dogs owned in the U.S. grew to roughly 15 million by 1960, their collars jingling, we kept killing wolves. In the span of less than a century, while deer populations exploded, wolves had all but disappeared.
And then a few people began to wonder if there were a way to bring at least some of the wolves back. In 1971, Marlin Perkins, the host of NBC’s Wild Kingdom (the wildlife show that “let viewers see the action, but not the violence”) had retired as director of the Saint Louis Zoo. With his wife, Carol, and several associates, Perkins founded the Wild Canid Survival and Research Center in Eureka, starting with a single enclosure and four wolves.
Next came the Endangered Species Act of 1973. Three years later, Mexican wolves were listed as endangered. “It was a government antipredator campaign that essentially exterminated them, and then the Endangered Species Act comes around and an animal that we’ve spent so much time trying to eradicate comes up No. 1 on that list,” says Maggie Dwire, assistant coordinator of the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service’s Mexican Wolf Recovery Program. “And we try to restore it.”
By 1980, U.S. agents in Mexico had trapped the last five remaining wild Mexican gray wolves. They put them together with wolves from zoos to form a captive breeding program. One of the five wild wolves, dubbed Don Diego, was sent to the Eureka center, where he was paired with a female raised in captivity. The couple got busy making wolf pups. “In the early days, we were just mating as many wolves as we could,” says Dwire.
That’s when Pam Braasch was dreaming of wolves while growing up in Spring Grove, a small town in northern Illinois. “I was one of those little girls with the wolf posters and bedspread,” she says. “And pillows. Oh my gosh, it was ridiculous.” She saw wolves in movies, in National Geographic, on the Discovery Channel, in pictures, in books—”I had so many wolf books.” She thought they were beautiful. She thought they were regal. But she had never actually seen one in the flesh.
As Braasch dreamed, Perkins stayed with the canid center through some rocky years, until his death in 1986. The center endured, and in 1998, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service finally began to reintroduce Mexican gray wolves to the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forests in Arizona. Ranchers sued to halt the program. Their suit was dismissed.
In 2001, Braasch, armed with a bachelor’s degree in forestry, a master’s degree in environmental education, and two years’ experience at the Saint Louis Zoo, was hired at the canid center. “I almost died,” she says. “Dream opportunity.” And when she finally saw her first live wolf? “I think I cried.”
Today, there are 42 Mexican gray wolves in the wild in the U.S., located in Arizona and the Gila National Forest in New Mexico. All were either born at the Eureka canid center or are descended from wolves that were. By 2009, the center had become one of the most important facilities in the country for breeding red wolves and Mexican gray wolves for reintroduction to the wild—but it faced dangers of its own.
A private nonprofit, the canid center occupies 63 acres on the site where Perkins began, which it leases from Washington University’s Tyson Research Center. As of mid-October, it was sheltering 31 Mexican gray wolves; one very shy red wolf; four African wild dogs; two swift foxes; and three maned wolves, which “roar-bark” and are technically not wolves. All represent threatened or endangered canids. If they’re to survive, this could be their future gene pool. The center, meanwhile, depends entirely on donations and $8 visitor fees.
In order for it to help the wolves, people—especially those in St. Louis—need to know it’s there. And many don’t.
That’s the danger.
In 2009, Mac Sebald was in Las Vegas. Sebald, a 61-year-old St. Louis native with a background in manufacturing management, served as chief operations officer for a Vegas charity. After his wife died three years ago, he decided to return to his hometown. He was “deeply an animal person,” he says, but he’d never given wolves much thought. At the same time, the canid center needed an executive director. Its programs had been a success for the quadrupeds, “but the main reason I got the job,” Sebald says, “was that we were in financial problems, big-time.”
The center needed to cut costs, raise revenue—and raise its profile. “Anytime you say you’re St. Louis’ best-kept secret, you know you have a problem,” Sebald says. “So to enhance income, we did several things. One is, we changed our name”—from the Wild Canid Survival and Research Center to the Endangered Wolf Center. “And we changed our logo, adjusted our tag line a little bit; the old tag line was ‘an alternative to extinction,’ and we changed it to ‘the alternative to extinction.'”
In deciding on the new name, the center hosted focus groups. “We found out words that they had negative responses to and words they had positive responses to,” Sebald says. “The word ‘wild’ was a negative, because people associated it with ‘vicious.’ They didn’t know what the word ‘canid’ meant—most people don’t.” (A canid is any member of the family of carnivorous animals Canidae, which includes wolves, foxes, jackals, coyotes, and dogs.) “There were a number of words that kind of surprised us. We did find that they had a very positive response to the word ‘endangered.’ And even though we have more than just wolves, ‘wolf’ was a real attractive word to them; they understand what a wolf is. And we wanted to keep it short.”
The Endangered Wolf Center is on the cusp of its 40th year, but it’s still a bare-bones operation. A pair of 30-year-old, 12- by 60-foot trailers are its offices. There’s a gift shop and education center in a converted WWII ammunition bunker nearby (the federal government acquired the land by eminent domain during the war). A dry-erase board in Sebald’s cramped office is covered with green scribbles: strategies for Facebook, where they sign some posts ^..^ and have begun to post videos of the resident wolves.
On a day in October, the new Endangered Wolf Center page on Facebook had 1,026 likes, up 13 from the day before. Seven hours later, it had 1,030. “We’re kind of going from being relatively unknown to the general community to being more well-known,” Sebald says. “And that’s part of our opportunity here—that’s why we changed the name, that’s why we changed the logo, to be more recognizable”¦ But conversely, in the scientific community, we’re very well-known because of our contribution to protocols of managed breeding.”
There are other facilities, including zoos, that house red wolves or Mexican grays for reintroduction programs. But, says Braasch, who is now the center’s education director at age 33, “we literally wrote the book for every institution that works with these animals. So when there’s a question about how to capture an animal, how to administer vaccinations, if they’re having behavior problems, we’re the ones they call.”
The center estimates it has about 15,000 visitors a year, which contributes a mite toward its annual budget: Sebald says it’s just $600,000 to $700,000 to cover wolf care, eight full-time employees, and a part-timer.
Braasch and Sebald are quick to point out the advantages of visiting the center in the winter, when the wolves are more visible: “They’re more active,” says Braasch. “The foliage is gone. Their fur is absolutely beautiful; they have their full winter coat.” “¦
As she talks, two of the adult Mexican grays pad along a ridge, watching at a distance. “We do not socialize them whatsoever,” Sebald says. “You’ll never see us baby-talking them like you do your dog.”
Before the adult grays are released into the wild, they’re sent to a prerelease site where they’re watched to make sure they exhibit good hunting techniques. Workers will “maybe release live game into their enclosure,” Braasch explains.
“If they ignore the animal, if they don’t even understand what’s going on, then they can’t be released. But that’s never happened. They always know what to do.”
To read the full article and view five videos, including two of Mexican gray wolves, published in the St. Louis Magazine, December 2010 issue, click here.
Photo credit: Mexican gray wolf pup courtesy of the Endangered Wolf Center
Videos in the story include:
A four-minute film about the Endangered Wolf Center, produced by the center.
Eight-week-old Mexican gray wolves at the center get their first check-up.
The Mexican gray wolf pups at 12 weeks
The wildly maned wolf and its bark-roar
The African wild dog has a marrow snack.