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Endangered wolf copes with being housed in enclosure

ASSOCIATED PRESS A 12-year-old male red wolf runs through its enclosure at Virginia Living Museum in Newport News, Va.

NEWPORT NEWS, Va. — The Virginia Living Museum’s lone red wolf seemed to be in a good mood…

His tail was down, his reddish coat flat, his ears forward.

“Aw, he’s being a goof today,” said Robin Sutker, bird and mammal curator, as he rolled on the forest floor to rub a scent into his coat.

It can be hard to be a goof, especially when your best friend just died.

“He wouldn’t be having those relaxed behaviors if he was stressed out, or if he wanted companionship and didn’t have it,” she said. “He’s definitely coping with being alone very well.”

The 12-year-old male and his late 11-year-old female companion were two of just a few hundred left of their species.

A U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service assessment in 2018 estimated that only 44 were left in a five-county area in northeastern North Carolina.

Only three breeding pairs remained.

Over 200 red wolves live in approved captive breeding facilities, including the Virginia Living Museum, as part of the federal red wolf Species Survival Plan. The goal is to keep enough genetic diversity in the species that it can survive by breeding animals that could be re-introduced into the wild. The museum participates in a number of other SSPs too.

“Essentially it’s designed to save the species,” said Chris Chrippen, the museum’s senior director of animal welfare and conservation. “They’re the fail-safe.”

The male red wolf was born at the museum in April 2007, a member of a six-pup litter. His mother and most of his siblings found their ways to other facilities as part of the SSP.

Historically, the species lived throughout the southeast U.S., the only wolf species endemic to the region. The wolf’s short coat and smaller stature is adapted to environments like the wooded area that the museum is located in.

But in recent decades, their range has shrunk to just the Albemarle Peninsula in North Carolina. Re-introducing red wolves there has proved politically testy too, unpopular with landowners who want to protect their animals.

The wolves are often mistaken for coyotes and shot by landowners as a nuisance species, despite federal protections that have been in place since they were declared endangered in 1967. In fact, they’re so similar that they can interbreed, although recent research still points to them being a distinct species.

Besides interactions with humans, their habitat is shrinking. From the west, they’re being pushed by development. From the east, predicted sea level rises associated with global warming will inundate parts of the Albemarle Peninsula.

“You need the land in the wild,” Crippen said. “You can’t take all these measures to carefully manage this population and then put them out where they’re not going to be successful.”

The last member of the museum’s pack, the lone wolf’s father, died in January. Afterward, the museum and SSP made it a priority to find a companion for him.

He’s well past the age where he’s likely to produce pups — red wolves typically live until the age of 12 or 13. But it’s a quality of life issue for the wolves, who tend to live in small packs.

The 11-year-old female arrived at the museum from the Brevard Zoo in Melbourne, Florida, in late spring. Museum staff say they bonded pretty much instantly.

“They were pretty much inseparable,” Sutker said.

They usually ate together, never competing for food or being aggressive. When the museum set up separate dens for them to sleep in outside of the exhibit, they always chose to sleep together.

He had never lived with a wolf who wasn’t a member of his immediate family, but Sutker said he adapted quickly. The pair started digging a den together, even though their enclosure already had one.

But the museum knew she was sick when it got her.

She had a degenerative disc disease in her lower back that would’ve required a significant and painful intervention. Her health rapidly and suddenly declined in recent weeks.

“We basically saw a decline within a matter of days,” Sutker said. “She was fine, and then she was not.”

On the advice of the SSP, the museum put her down.

“For good or for bad, that’s the final word — the quality of life of the animal,” Crippen said.

Since then, there’s been a noticeable change in the remaining wolf. Sutker thinks some of his recent behavior, like howling less and covering his tracks, may be from him trying to hide from other wolves, now that he doesn’t have a pack to help protect him.

But the museum hopes that won’t last long. They’re already looking for another female.

Sutker’s optimistic about his chances with another companion. He was always known as the most submissive of his litter, which bodes well for bonding.

“It could be one of those one-in-a-million things where they just got along really well,” Sutker said. “But we’re prepared for any kind of scenario.”

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