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Red wolf puppies born in Sioux Falls zoo bring hope to conservation

Red wolf mother Camelia rests with her six babies at the Great Plains Zoo.
The Great Plains Zoo
The Great Plains Zoo
Red wolf mother Camelia rests with her six babies at the Great Plains Zoo.

At a time when the red wolf population barely hovers above extinction, Great Plains Zoo staff were thrilled when six puppies were born on May 4.

These red wolf puppies are an achievement for the zoo’s conservation efforts.

The Great Plains Zoo has kept red wolves for several years in an attempt to increase the species' dwindling numbers. Last fall, the zoo received Uyosi and Camelia, a male and female pair of red wolves, hoping they would bond and begin reproducing. After the passing of the previous red wolf couple, Uyosi and Camelia are the only adult red wolves at the zoo.

Joel Locke is the Animal Care Director at the Great Plains Zoo. Locke said the puppies’ birthday marks a bittersweet anniversary for the zoo staff.

“It was a very special day on May 4 because that was actually a year ago, this May 4, we actually had to humanely euthanize the other two because of some health issues,” Locke said. “And so then full-circle, May 4 this year we have six red wolf pups born. So, it’s pretty nice for the staff.”

Angie Blommer is a zookeeper who specializes in red wolves at the Great Plains Zoo. She said North America is the only place where red wolves live. These wolves used to roam an expansive territory along the southeastern coast of the United States. However, according to National Geographic, red wolves are now only found living in the wild at the Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge in North Carolina.

Blommer said red wolves are the most endangered canid species in the world. This year, only about 15 red wolves were known to exist outside of captivity.

Red wolf conservation began decades ago. Despite these efforts, human interference and habitat loss continued to destroy the population. According to U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, red wolves were declared extinct in the wild in 1980.

While the species’ numbers are beginning to climb, Blommer said habitat loss and a poor reputation remain problematic.

“There’s a lot of habitat fragmentation, where they have to cross roads to get to the other part of their territory, so then they’re getting hit by cars,” Blommer said. “And then you do have the negative aspect, where people just... they read the books like ‘Little Red Riding Hood,’ they think wolves are bad and they don’t want them near their livestock, so they shoot them.”

While the Great Plains Zoo houses red wolves, that's not the case for many zoos. Blommer believes a reason for this hesitance is the red wolves’ personality. Red wolves are shy, and they don’t have an impressive howl like a typical wolf. Blommer said these wolves prefer to keep to themselves, meaning they aren't showy for visitors.

Despite the challenges red wolves face, these new puppies spark hope for those involved with the conservation. Locke said the goal is for the pups to one day have litters of their own. It is possible this next generation of puppies will be “cross-fostered,” which means the young pups will be placed into existing dens in the wild.

“Red wolves are very good mothers, so they would care for new pups that were put in there with them,” Locke said. “So, down the road, we hope to increase the population inside zoos, and then hopefully from there put some back out in the wild.”

Zookeepers said that the puppies will start to explore their enclosure in the next 1-2 weeks.

Veda is an English and journalism major at Augustana University in Sioux Falls. She loves writing and storytelling, and she plans to pursue a career as a journalist after graduation.