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giovedì 10 settembre 2015
The Last Red Wolves
The red wolf — the beloved mascot of Missouri football's next opponent, Arkansas State University — is critically endangered.
EUREKA, Missouri — J.D. McKissic is a Red Wolf for life, the senior wide receiver says, even if that species of canid may be dying out.
There are 50 left in the wild and another 250 or so living in captivity in zoos around the country, meaning there are more student athletes who call themselves “red wolves” than actual living red wolves.
The red wolf used to roam broad swaths of the American Southeast — as far north as Pennsylvania, south to the tip of Florida and west through the middle of Texas. One of their last strongholds, wolf experts say, were the Ozarks — northern Arkansas and southern Missouri.
Now, the wild wolves roam a single refuge in eastern North Carolina. There isn’t a single facility in Arkansas that actually hosts a living red wolf.
And according to McKissic, the Red Wolves’ star wideout, not many Arkansas State students know the plight of their dear mascot, Howl, and his canine brethren.
In fact, McKissic wasn't aware, either, until a reporter clued him in Wednesday.
“It bothers me man,” he said after hearing about red wolves' near extinction. “Red Wolf for life.”
The closest red wolves are at Eureka’s Endangered Wolf Center, which hosts four wolves — two females and two males paired off in the hopes they’ll breed, efforts that proved futile during the last denning season.
“The future of the red wolf is uncertain,” says Regina Mossotti, director of animal care and conservation at the Endangered Wolf Center. “It’s a horribly sad situation.”
WHAT HAPPENED TO THE WOLF?
You’ve heard this story before about vulnerable animals: hunted to near extinction, habitat destroyed by pollution and development. The red wolf’s history is no different.
The red wolf was a charter member of protected species on President Richard Nixon's Endangered Species Act in 1973.
In 1980, they were declared biologically extinct in the wild, existing only in captivity. In 1987, the first pack was released in Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge in North Carolina. In 1990, another pack was released on St. Vincent Island off the coast of the Florida panhandle.
Since then, legislation has moved through Congress to defund the species' survival plan or negate the red wolf’s protected status.
“In order to be successful to preserve a species, you need some sort of consensus,” said Jason Rylander, an attorney at the D.C.-based environmentalist group Defenders of Wildlife.
That’s something wolves, not just red wolves, don’t have. Partly because wolves don't have the best reputation.
But not all wolves are big and bad like fairy tale villains.
Red wolves, which are smaller than their western cousin, the gray wolf, are more scared than they are vicious, more docile than excitable.
Mossotti took her children to see “Frozen,” she said, unaware a pack of wolves would start stalking the film’s protagonists. She had to explain to them afterward how unrealistic that depiction was.
At the end of the night, her kids went back to snuggling with their wolf stuffed animals.
“I’ve worked with wolves in the wild,” she said, “and when you approach their den where their puppies are or their food, like an elk carcass they just worked hours to get down, you’d think they would defend it and growl and snarl and all that stuff.
"They don’t. They run away.”
THE WOLF'S HARD FUTURE
Rozene and Itabi, a mating wolf pair at Eureka’s Endangered Wolf Center, love each other, keepers say. The two are constantly playing or snuggling under a tree. They eat their meals together and fall asleep in the same den.
But captivity is apparently a contraceptive for wolves.
The two came to the center a year ago to share a two-acre enclosure and hopefully parent a litter of puppies. No luck.
They were paired together using an online profile that matches wolves’ genetic profiles to produce successful mating pairs. By most accounts, the system worked with Rozene and Itabi, ages 5 and 6, wolf experts say. They get along very well, spending most of their days chasing each other around their enclosure or splashing in their pond hunting for frogs and turtles.
Their relationship is soon to end. Such is the life for endangered species that don’t breed successfully.
Come October, they’ll be paired with new mates at different facilities to make way for a multigenerational pack of red wolves in Eureka, one that has bred successfully. Of 30 breeding pairs in captivity, only eight had puppies this year, said Kim Wheeler, executive director of the Red Wolf Coalition, a North Carolina nonprofit that supports conservation and education efforts.
“That’s not a lot, but this population by no means is down and out,” she said. “The animals themselves are incredibly resilient."
It helped in 2007 when Wheeler got an email from a couple of Arkansas State students looking for information about the carnivore native to their state.
Arkansas State — then known as the Indians — faced NCAA sanctions for using a Native American mascot and were banned from hosting postseason events. ASU offered to change its mascot if the NCAA would lift the sanctions.
The two sides struck a deal, sending students, student-athletes, alumni and athletics administrators on the hunt for a new mascot.
Wheeler hadn’t heard of the search and blew off the email, she said, by sending back a one page handout she uses at educational sessions. Weeks later, ASU Chancellor Robert Potts called asking for more information. This time, she sent back everything she could find.
By March 2008, Arkansas State rolled out the new mascot in a triumphant ceremony, unveiling a new logo and custom typeface. The administration invited Wheeler and other members of the Red Wolf Coalition to howl at the 50-yard line of a football game.
“I swear,” she said, “one day I’m gonna get there.”
And red wolf populations will continue to howl, too, experts say. Although it’s unlikely the wolves will survive without human management, the species is adaptable and rugged enough to succeed if re-released. Arkansas, with a rural and woodsy landscape, might be a prime location for them.
“They’re perfect for Arkansas,” Mossotti said. “They should be very proud of their mascot.”