Red Wolf Pups Getting Their Paws Under Them at Museum Exhibit

Museum of Life and Science pups get settled into their new home in Durham
Photo courtesy of Courtney Cawley
Two wolf pup siblings snuggle up together in their exhibit home at the Museum of Life and Science.

On April 28, a 6-year-old red wolf who lives at the Museum of Life and Science in Durham gave birth to three male and three female pups, although only two male and two female pups have survived. This birth of red wolf pups was the first to occur at the museum since 2002, and holds a lot of importance to the continuing survival of this critically endangered species.

This birth represents the first litter for the pups' mother, who happens to be the second most genetically valuable female of the remaining population of all red wolves. The fact she gave birth to two healthy female pups is very exciting for the continuing survival of the species.

With a total of only about 300 wolves remaining in all the world, captive and wild, the North Carolina native red wolf (Canis rufus) is a more slender version of a grey wolf with a signature cinnamon-colored coat that gives it its name. Adult red wolves weigh 45-80 pounds and have a life expectancy of about 15 years in captivity and seven or less in the wild. This species was once a dominating predator in the southeastern U.S. until hunting and other factors shaved down the population to the 300 we have now.

The species may be lesser known than the Blue whale or Sumatran tiger, but nonetheless is just as in need of care if it stands a chance at continued existence. This mission of care has been taken on by the Museum of Life and Science and partner organizations, such as the Species Survival Plan. The SSP sets standards on everything from food to enrichment activities.

"Historically one of the main initiatives of the Red Wolf Species Survival Plan was to reintroduce red wolves from the captive breeding population back into the wild, but due to recent changes the 'reintroduction' piece of the program has been suspended," says Museum of Life and Science Communications Manager Leslie Pepple. "Pups resulting from successful SSP breeding matches will remain with the captive breeding population in one of the 33 partner organizations across the country. Despite not being eligible for wild reintroduction, the museum’s pups will still make valuable contributions to the advancement of the species as members of the captive SSP breeding population."

All four pups will be matched to other SSP partner organizations to avoid interbreeding, which often causes birth defects, but the SSP will continue to monitor the pups for the next year — possibly longer — before releasing them, so Triangle families will have plenty of time to visit the pups at the museum.

The Museum of Life and Science has set these wolves up nicely, including exhibit amenities such as a cozy cave den for shelter and a steep hill for climbing and enjoyment. Museum staff feed the wolves meatballs filled with chow, rats, their favorite deer parts and other small meats. Since the pups are so young and can’t quite chew their way into a full-size rat, the parents still help feed them from time to time via regurgitation. The parents have a very good relationship with each other and their pups, as evidenced by the active caretaking role the pups' father takes. The mother helps provide for the pups, of course, but the father teaches the pups hunting and climbing skills, helps with feeding and protects them.

The enclosure has been designed to represent that of a red wolf's natural environment in order to meet SSP standards, bring fun to the animals, and keep them mentally and physically engaged to stimulate healthy growth. Enrichment helps promote natural behaviors in captivity so they will have a smooth transition when they are introduced to the wild. Animal keepers clean the space, without interfering too much with the animals, and place enrichment items in the exhibit, such as a bone to chew on, about once a day. 

Just watching these animals live and play was so entertaining, but learning about how the museum is helping to protect the entire species made the experience satisfying and educational. If you'd like to learn more about the red wolf pups or plan a visit to the museum to see them yourself, visit the Museum of Life and Science's website.

Alex Baker is a senior at Apex High School. He plays basketball and lacrosse, and is also a member of the school's Academy of Information Technology.


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