"This excellent history makes clear the verdict that lies immediately ahead: the red wolf saved, America's triumph; the red wolf lost, America's shame."

--- Harvard Biologist E.O. Wilson

"The first complete telling of the comeback of the red wolf. . . . The combination of first-person immediacy interwoven with red wolf history will delight animal lovers."

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The Secret World of Red Wolves: The Fight to Save North America’s Other Wolf. (Univ. of North Carolina Press)

June 10, 2013; Hardcover only

256 pages; 24 pictures; 2 maps, 2 figures, bibliography and index


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FROM CHAPTER 3, THe Search for Spring’s Pups:

Author’s Note: The first part of the story takes readers on a journey into the world of red wolf management by spanning a seasonal cycle of field work conducted by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife biologists who are tasked with recovering the elusive canid. I was lucky enough to be able to shadow them across the seasons and partake in some of the work. In this passage, I am shadowing two red wolf biologists, Chris and Ford, as they “foster” two red wolf puppies which had been born at the Lincoln Park Zoo into a wild den in northeastern North Carolina. An animal caretaker from the zoo, Erin, is also present. Fostering is a process of slipping zoo-born red wolf puppies into the dens of wild red wolf females who have birthed a similarly-aged litter. When this scene starts, the biologists had just found the wild den in an unruly patch of dense myrtle scrub and they are preparing to move the zoo-born pups into it. A breeding female red wolf, which had birthed two wild pups in the den, has just fled and is hanging out about one hundred yards away from the den site...

    Now that the team knows where the den is, they double back to the trucks and fetch the puppies, plus Erin and me. We trek back along the dark water canal and retrace their steps. No one worries about being quiet this time. They lead us to a spot where a sea of green wax myrtle bushes blend one into the other. Only the best trained eyes might note an upside-down "V" notched in the canopy, near two tall sprigs of grass where the wolves had worn the twigs smooth with their comings and goings.

      Chris nods at Erin and points at the notch. "Want to do the honors?" He asks.

      Her face lights up and she clasps her hands together. She nods, Yes, yes.

      Chris plucks the puppies from the carrier and places one in each of her hands. When, after a moment, it becomes obvious that Erin needs at least one hand free to lower herself beneath the bushes, I take one of the puppies and she ducks in after Ford. The pup is warm in my palm. His tail is about the size of my pinky. I can hold him safely with just one hand, but I cradle him with two. I crawl in after her. It is five to seven degrees cooler under the network of tightly spaced, tiny myrtle leaves.

      Ford, who is perched above the den opening on the hill, reaches into the den and fishes out the male. When fostering pups, the team has made it a standard practice to take urine or excrement from the wild pups and rub it into the fur of the captive-born pups. The female may be more accepting of the foreign pups, the thinking goes, if they smell of her own.

      "Let's see how much pee you got," Ford says. He tickles the baby wolf's underside. The pup wiggles its spine and its little limbs flail in an uncoordinated fashion. Its head wobbles back and forth, mouth slightly open in protest. Pink gums are visible along with a tiny pink tongue. It looks for all the world like it's trying to bark or yelp but all that comes out is a squeaky, unsteady whine. A few gold drops dribble down on the pup Erin holds in her hands. Ford keeps tickling but the pup doesn't have much juice to give. He returns the male and scoops out its sister. She is much larger than her brother. He rubs her privies and honey-colored pee rains down freely. She mutters a protest. Her head waggles side to side.

       "Aw, you got lots of pee!" Ford exclaims, rationing the river of piss between the pup in Erin's hands and the one in mine. Pee scatters over puppies and hands alike. We rub the urine into the pups' fur. An acrid, sharp odor reaches my nose. Duly christened to the wild, we lower the zoo-born pups into the den. Now there are four red wolf puppies in the cool pocket of earth. The puppies nose and tunnel into each other. They shake and feebly haul themselves atop one another. The natal pups are darker than their new siblings. Their fur is the color of dark peat, but their heads show a large helping of auburn hair, the color of dried pine straw lit with a summer's sunset. The Chicago pups are slate gray and have traces of white on their paws, but they have the same characteristic auburn heads. One of the zoo-born pups wanders from the puppy pile and crawls on jerky legs to the front den wall. We watch as he tries to haul his feeble limbs up the soil embankment. He gets only far enough for sunlight to sparkle off his pee-streaked fur. Having stretched himself as far as he can, he loses his balance and careens to one side, then crawls back to the swarming puppy pile. His sister, meanwhile, has crawled atop the two natal pups and come to a rest with her back legs stretched out over both the other pups' back ends. They settle, after awhile, into a ball against the den's inner wall. Everyone crowds around and watches the baby wolves. I feel privileged to be here, and hopeful that these four will grow up and one day have puppies of their own.

       "Let's go," Chris directs, pushing himself up from the lowered position he'd been in while videoing the puppies tumbling into each other. "We don't want to keep her from them." The team would have been happy to crouch around this small hole in the earth and watch the pups longer, but Chris was right for shooing us away. The biologists try to interfere with the wild dens as little as they must. Young pups also depend on their mothers to regulate their body temperature and they didn't want to keep the mother away. Practice and repetition had shown them that the adult red wolves never flee too far from the dens when the biologists show up. They usually stay close, within a few hundred yards.

       In 2009, Chris co-authored a study examining whether the biologists' actions at the den sites had any long-lasting negative affect upon the wild puppies in terms of their development and survival. The study's lead author, Karen Beck, then a postdoctoral candidate at N.C. State University, had pushed to do the study for years but met with steep resistance. The dogma of wolf experts around the world, at the time, was that any human interference with a wolf's den would result in the mother killing the pups. The red wolf team was hesitant to place their endangered wolves at risk. But Chris was game to try. After studying puppies from twelve wild litters between 1999 and 2004, the research team found that handling neonatal puppies did not result in the mothers' abandoning them, and that it did not negatively affect the puppies' survival. (The dogma about interfering with wolf dens was so entrenched, the research team faced obstacles getting their study published until 2009.) Having this information allowed the management team to develop protocols to obtain blood samples from all the puppies of every litter they can locate. It's an invasive process for any wild animal, let alone an endangered one, but getting the blood samples has also has become a vital monitoring step to prevent the offspring from coyote and wolf crosses from getting into the red wolf population.

        The team slides out from the myrtle's under-canopy of branches layered like petticoats. We blink in the bright sun and hike back to the trucks. The men joke with the light-hearted relief of a job well done. The biologists enjoy the feeling of doing something to help their charges, a cherished sentiment of something going well for the wolves. These  moments are a reservoir of strength to draw upon later when they find vehicle-battered red wolves on the shoulders of highways and refuge roads, and wolves dead from blood loss and bullet holes.

All content © 2013 T. DeLene Beeland

Red wolves are shy, elusive, misunderstood predators. Until the 1800s, they were common in the longleaf pine savannas and deciduous forests of the southeastern United States. But red wolves were nearly annihilated by habitat degradation, persecution, and interbreeding with the coyote. Today, reintroduced red wolves are found only on peninsular northeastern North Carolina within less than one percent of their former historic range. In The Secret World of Red Wolves, nature writer T. DeLene Beeland shadows the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s pioneering program over the course of a year to craft an intimate portrait of the red wolf, its natural history, and its restoration. Her engaging portrait of this top-level predator traces the intense effort of conservation personnel to restore a species that has slipped to the verge of extinction. Beeland weaves together the voices of scientists, conservationists, and local landowners while posing larger questions about human coexistence with red wolves, our understanding of what defines this animal as a distinct species and how climate change may swamp the only place it is currently found in the wild.