The North Carolina Zoo protects wildlife and wild places and inspires people to join us in conserving the natural world.
Once upon a time, the American red wolf was an apex predator in North America. But then, in the 1970s, hunting and habitat destruction pushed the species toward extinction.
The loss had devastating effects on the region’s ecosystem — deer populations exploded and non-native coyotes moved in.
Today, there are signs of hope.
Thanks to conservation efforts at the North Carolina Zoo and other agencies, including the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which initiated an under human care breeding program, the American red wolf is rebounding, though still gravely endangered.
Conservation groups estimate that about 230 red wolves now thrive in captivity, and in eastern North Carolina, an additional 20 remain in the wild.
How did it all come about?
In the mid-1990s, the North Carolina Zoo began studying ways to preserve the red wolf in the state and across the nation.
Chris Lasher is the Animal Management Supervisor and Population Manager of the American Red Wolf SAFE program at the Zoo. He said that because a significant portion of the American red wolf population inhabits North Carolina, the Zoo felt it was only right to focus its efforts here.
The effort began with a “guest-view habitat” at the Zoo to bring awareness to the species. But over time, Lasher said, that commitment expanded to include a large, off-habitat conservation area, where the North Carolina Zoo is now the nation’s second-largest conservator of American red wolves.
In 2021, the Zoo announced the birth of three litters of red wolf pups at its facility — 12 pups born over three days from April 28 to April 30. The births served as a major point of success, validating the work the Zoo is doing to preserve the American red wolf.
Lasher said he hopes that guests of the Zoo can learn about the animals and why conservation efforts are important.
“The biggest thing that really surprises me is that not a lot of people are even aware that the red wolf even exists,” Lasher said. “It is native to the Southeast region where we are in North Carolina. This is our wolf species.”
When asked why saving the American red wolf is important, Lasher has a ready response: “It’s because our ecosystem is broken. When we removed that apex predator, which was the red wolf, we removed the species that kind of controlled everything else within the ecosystem.”
Conservation, however, is a group effort. Guests of the North Carolina Zoo can contribute to the conservation of the American red wolf in ways that require little effort. When buying food at the zoo, guests can round up their purchases to the next dollar to help protect endangered species. Guests also may purchase buttons at the zoo’s gift shop, the proceeds from which go toward the zoo’s conservation work.
Lasher said the biggest impact that guests can make is spreading the word about the red wolf species and the zoo’s conservation efforts.
“People should understand why it is important,” Lasher said of the red wolf. “It brings value to the areas where it is.”
In addition to helping keep the ecosystem in balance, the red wolf also contributes to the state’s economy through ecotourism.
“We need to make sure that we’re doing everything we can right now to make sure this animal survives,” Lasher said.