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'Misunderstood Underdog': Zoo Knoxville celebrates first-ever Red Wolf Week

The Red Wolf is endemic only to the U.S. and Zoo Knoxville said East Tennessee is located in the middle of their habitat.

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — Zoo Knoxville is working to make sure a native wolf species that was declared extinct in the wild during the 1980s has a chance to survive. They are celebrating their inaugural Red Wolf Week, celebrating the incredibly rare wolf that once used to roam the Southeastern U.S.

America's red wolf is the most endangered wolf species in the world. The species was brought to the brink of extinction in the 1900s, and in the 1980s only around a dozen wolves survived in captivity after the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service intervened to save what few it could find in the wilds of Texas and Louisiana. 

Zoo Knoxville said it had 14 wolves to start with. Since then it and other zoos have played a vital role in ensuring the critically endangered wolves can repopulate at captive breeding facilities.

"They've had the misfortune of being termed the 'Big Bad Wolf,'" said Kelly Cox, assistant director of animal care at Zoo Knoxville. "Wolves are not big. They are not bad. They are really elusive creatures. They do not care to interact with humans."

Today, more than 240 wolves populate the U.S. across 49 breeding facilities. In 2019, Zoo Knoxville estimated that around 25 red wolves lived outside captivity in the U.S., so there is plenty of work to be done.

Previously, wildlife leaders tried to reintroduce the red wolf in the Great Smoky Mountains. The first red wolf family stepped out of a large cage and into the wild of the Great Smoky Mountains in November 1991.  Two more families were released in 1992 at Cades Cove and Tremont.

For all the deer and other prey inside the national park, it was not enough to feed the families of wolves.  Many animals ventured outside the park in search of food. Several wolves that left the park were killed or died of unknown causes. One was poisoned when it drank antifreeze beneath a vehicle in Blount County.

But the real life-and-death struggle was not based on keeping the animals within the park boundary.  It was the inability to keep new litters alive.

Around 40 red wolf pups were born in the wild in the Great Smoky Mountains. None of them survived.

The true effort to preserve the genetics of red wolves now mostly resides with the managed wolves at facilities like Zoo Knoxville.

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