ZooTampa Celebrates Rare Birth Of Litter Of Nearly Extinct Red Wolves – Patch

TAMPA, FL With just 35 red wolves remaining in the wild, conservationists are pinning their hopes on a national captive breeding program launched to save the rare wolf from extinction.

So, Monday's news that a red wolf gave birth to four wolf pups at ZooTampa at Lowry Park became a cause for celebration.

In March, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's Red Wolf Recovery Program delivered a pair of female red wolves to ZooTampa in anticipation of them mating with the zoo's resident red wolf brothers, Yule, Redington and Connor.

The zoo's veterinary team was thrilled but cautious when 3-year-old female red wolf Nymeria gave birth to one male and three female pups on April 28, eight weeks after successfully mating with one of the brothers. The mating season for red wolves, which mate for life, is January through March.

However, the zoo delayed announcing the birth of the critically endangered pups until they'd been given their two-week checkup and the veterinary staff was confident they were hitting milestones, such as opening their eyes which occurs about 10 days after birth and gaining weight.

After the pups' two-week checkup, the zoo's veterinary staff declared them "to be doing well." The pups are currently huddled in their den with their mother in the new Florida Wilds habitat, and should begin to emerge from the den later this summer.

ZooTampa is one of 44 approved zoos and wildlife centers throughout the U.S. selected to participate in the wildlife service's Red Wolf Recovery Program, which is breeding red wolves in captivity with the intention of introducing them back into the wild.

This is no simple feat. According to the U.S. Wildlife Service, breeding captive animal populations differs dramatically from the wild. Captive populations are vulnerable to behavioral and genetic changes that can compromise their instinct and ability to reproduce and survive.

See related story: Zoo's Rarest Animal Has Room To Roam In New Native Habitat

That's why the U.S. Wildlife Service joined forces with The Association of Zoos and Aquariums' Red Wolf Species Survival Plan. The association provides research in genome banking, assisted reproduction, behavior studies and veterinary medicine to aid in the survival of captive wolves.

The birth of ZooTampa's pups raises the number of red wolves in the captive population to 224.

The news comes a year after the U.S. Wildlife Service released a report estimating that red wolves are about eight years from extinction. Since 2013, the number of red wolves in the wild fell from 120 to just 35.

The red wolf was first identified as a separate species in Florida by John Bartram in 1791. However, a debate over whether the red wolves in Florida were a distinct species or a hybrid of a gray wolf and a coyote continued into the 20th century, when the red wolf was finally officially recognized as a distinct species in 1905.

The red wolf is smaller than the gray wolf, standing about 26 inches at the shoulder, about 4 feet long and weighing anywhere between 45 and 80 pounds. Their coats are mostly a brown or buff color, with some black along their backs and the end of their tails. There is sometimes a reddish tint to the fur on their muzzle, behind their ears, and on the backs of their legs.

In the wild, red wolves typically live five to six years, and as long as 14 years in captivity.

Historically, red wolves were found from Texas east to Florida and north to Pennsylvania in mountains, lowland forests and wetlands, according to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.

Trapped and killed to protect livestock and game, the red wolf was listed as extinct in the wild by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service in 1980.

Fortunately, before they were completely wiped out, 17 red wolves were captured for breeding by the wildlife service.

After successfully breeding the wolves, the wildlife service reintroduced them back into the wild in 1987 at two national parks, the Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge in North Carolina and one breeding pair at St. Vincent Island National Wildlife Refuge in northwestern Florida.

By 2013, the red wolf population at those parks had risen to 120. The revival of the red wolf, however, was short-lived. In 2021, the wildlife service announced that there were only two dozen red wolves remaining at the two national parks.

Conservationists attribute the sudden decline in the population to a North Carolina rule passed in 2012 that allowed the nighttime hunting of coyotes.

Red wolves, which are a bit larger than coyotes, became the target of hunters who killed them after mistaking them for coyotes or intentionally killed them for sport while hunting coyotes. In less than a month in late 2013, six red wolves were found shot.

Others were hit and killed by vehicles on roads, by private trappers and poisoning.

Since the initial release of the red wolf pair at the St. Vincent Island National Wildlife Refuge, the wildlife service relocated two male wolves from the North Carolina wildlife refuge to St. Vince Island in 2020. Then, on Feb. 7, 2021, another male was transferred from the North Carolina Zoo to St. Vincent in the hopes it would breed with the single female on the refuge.

Unfortunately, the female was found dead on the refuge on April 16, 2021. A cause of death has not been determined but foul play is not suspected.

Shortly after the death, the wildlife service released a 3-year-old female and a 2-year-old female that were raised in captivity on the refuge into the wild.

To date, there have been no reports of litters born on the refuge. However, for the first time in four years, a litter of six pups were born on the Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge in North Carolina during the week of April 18.

Red Wolf Recovery Program staff confirmed on its Facebook page that a litter of four females and two males had been born.

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ZooTampa Celebrates Rare Birth Of Litter Of Nearly Extinct Red Wolves - Patch

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