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Endangered Wolf Center needs help as Center's offspring are threatened by Arizona fire

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, June 15, 2011 - The Mexican gray wolves in Arizona have faced their fair share of challenges, and just as they're making a comeback after being hunted to the point of extinction in the wild, they're facing another hardship: one of the hottest, fastest, most intense wildfires in Arizona history.

The plight of the Mexican grays hits home for many in St. Louis. The group of about 50 wolves, the only wild Mexican grays in the world, can trace their ancestry back to the Endangered Wolf Center in Eureka.

"They're on their own," Regina Mossotti, director of animal care at the Endangered Wolf Center, said. "They're unable to send people in there because the fire is so intense."

According to Mossotti, the wolves have been pulling through, although their habitat has been burned. Of the three packs in the fire zone, one alpha was just recently released from the center and now has a litter of puppies.

"They're avoiding the fire pretty well," Mossotti said. "They're moving around to where it has been and are re-denning. They're doing great."

The center is able to track the adult wolves because they wear radio collars, which allow the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the center to see where the wolves are moving. The puppies, however, cannot be tracked.

"These wolves have amazing instincts, and we have to trust them to know what to do," Mossotti said.

In addition to the puppies born in the wild this year, the center also had its own new arrivals last month. On May 1, a wolf at the center had the fourth litter of Mexican grays born in captivity this year, and the staff is taking advantage of this opportunity.

Being one of just two facilities with newborn Mexican grays in the country, the Endangered Wolf Center is working with the Fish and Wildlife Service to develop a collar that puppies can wear as they grow, so individuals like the new litter in the fire zone can be tracked.

The center's puppies already wears the collars, which, if all goes according to plan, will grow and expand as the puppies grow and not have to be removed. If the collars work, the Fish and Wildlife Service will be using them next year, says Mossotti.

The goal is to ultimately release the puppies into the wild, and they'll already have an edge that most Mexican grays born in captivity do not.

According to Mossotti, the puppies are part of a multigenerational pack, including parents, a litter of siblings born last year (called "yearlings") and then the puppies.

"The yearlings and puppies get a lot of pack interaction they wouldn't usually get in captivity," Mossotti said. "The yearlings learn how to take care of puppies, and that allows them to act better in the wild."

However, despite being born and raised in captivity, the animals at the center are not overexposed to human interaction.

"Wolves are much more scared of people than we are of them," Mossotti said. "When we go into the enclosures to clean or repair them, they're as far away from us as they can possibly be. There's definitely a misconception from the big bad wolf."

A Point Of Pride

Founded in 1971 by Marlin Perkins of Mutual of Omaha's Wild Kingdom, the Endangered Wolf Center is a breeding facility exclusively for endangered canine species. Today it houses swift foxes, African wild dogs, maned wolves, Mexican gray wolves and red wolves.

"After (Perkins) retired, he thought the one animal in need of help was the wolf," Mossotti said. "Their numbers were dwindling, and they were misunderstood."

Today, while wild wolves are making a comeback, their numbers are still dwindling. Red wolves were once found in Missouri and much of the Midwest, but today only about 100 are wild in North Carolina. Mexican gray wolves are found in the Arizona and New Mexico border region, and only about 50 are wild today. These two species are the two most endangered candids in the world, and Mexican grey wolves are the most endangered mammals in North America.

"In the 1980s, they caught the last Mexican grays in the wild," Mossotti said. "In 1998, they started releasing them again. A lot of them came from the center, including the first female to give birth in the wild."

Every Mexican gray wolf in the wild today can trace its ancestry back to the Endangered Wolf Center.

Mossotti, who is a life-long St. Louisan, first started working at the center as an intern before going to graduate school and returning as director of animal care.

"For me, as a St. Louisan, I wish I had known about the center when I was younger," she said.

'We're In A Crisis'

The center, a non-profit organization, sees about 40,000 visitors a year and relies solely on private donations, tour fees and summer camps for financial support. The center just finished its first summer camp.

"Kids love it," Mossotti said. "We play games, teach them about nature. We go to a bat cave, teach them stream ecology in a stream we have, show them how to care for the endangered species, kind of like a 'junior keepers' program."

Education is one of the driving goals for the center, which aims to show the public that the wolves are not the bloodthirsty monsters from Little Red Riding Hood and to teach new generations the importance of environmental conservation. In addition to summer camps, the center also offers tours for the public.

"The charge for tours helps us take care of the wolves," Mossotti said.

Like many nonprofits, the center took a big hit since the recession. "The center is in crisis right now," board director Ralph Pfremmer said. "We hope the worst is over, but we're not taking anything for granted."

When the economy took a dive, so did donations to the center, though recent measures have stabilized its finances, says Pfremmer. The center is still able to make its employees' payroll and take care of the wolves, though austerity is changing the way the center operates.

To attract new donors, the center is "working hard to be as transparent as we can," Pfremmer said. The center is not a state or federal agency, so private donations and grants are essential to its operation, survival and scientific work.

"What we're doing is very scientifically significant," Pfremmer said. "The center is helping the country and the world."

To attract new donors, the center and its largely new board have launched an interactive outreach program, online and on Facebook. With virtual attractions such as the Puppy Cam, where anyone with internet access can see videos of the center's new litter, the center is looking to promote awareness for its work and also give St. Louis a well-deserved place on the map for wildlife conservation.

"We're not just a sports town," Pfremmer said. "St. Louis cannot let this place go. We can hang our hat on this and be proud of it. This is a gem of a place that needs to be recognized and be part of the community."

Mossotti agrees, saying the center's decades of scientific contributions have largely gone unnoticed and it needs support now more than ever.

"Today, I'm so proud of it," she said. "We have helped literally to bring a species back, and most people don't even know we exist."

Ryan Schuessler, a student at the University of Missouri Columbia, is a summer intern at the Beacon.