Mexican wolf puppies play at the Endangered Wolf Center.

The Endangered Wolf Center in Eureka, Missouri, Celebrates Its 50-Year Legacy

Tuesday September 6, 2022

By Rachel Huffman

If asked to think of a wolf, what image comes to mind first? The Big Bad Wolf in Little Red Riding Hood? The wolf who huffs and puffs and blows down houses in The Three Little Pigs? A werewolf?

The Endangered Wolf Center in Eureka, Missouri, aims to dispel that negative imagery and promote the conservation of Mexican wolves and American red wolves, among other endangered species of canids.

Arguably the best-kept secret in the St. Louis area, the Endangered Wolf Center was founded by Marlin Perkins – the original celebrity wildlife expert, host of Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom and former director of the Saint Louis Zoo – and his wife, Carol, in 1971. In its 50 years of service, the center has created an astounding legacy and pushed the boundaries of what research, conservation and education can achieve.

A proud wolf is spotted at the Endangered Wolf Center.
Photo by Michelle Steinmeyer | Endangered Wolf Center

The driving force behind its mission to help save and protect wild canids is its program to reintroduce Mexican wolves and American red wolves – the two most endangered wolves in the world – into the wild.

“Through all of their travels, [the Perkins] saw different wild species and ecosystems, but the wolf was deemed the most important,” Regina Mossotti, director of animal care and conservation, says. “It’s an umbrella species, meaning if you can help save it, you can help save a lot of other species.”

As keystone species, or apex predators, wolves play a vital role in healthy, balanced ecosystems. “We saw that on a grand scale when gray wolves were reintroduced to Yellowstone National Park in 1995,” Mossotti says.

Yellowstone had been devoid of wolves for more than 70 years after they were eradicated from the park by hunters. A few years after they were reintroduced, however, it became clear that wolves were what the park had desperately needed. A plant biologist started to see new plant growth, and after extensive research, he determined that the cause was the wolves. Through natural predation, the wolves brought the elk population back to a healthy level, allowing new plants and trees to grow, which subsequently brought beavers, songbirds, butterflies and even fish back to the area.

“Now that we understand how intimately connected everything is,” Mossotti says, “the responsibility is on our shoulders to fix what we’ve broken.”

By assisting its partners, including the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, in their recovery efforts for endangered species, the Endangered Wolf Center is helping to restore ecosystems across the country. The linchpins in the scheme are Mexican wolves and American red wolves.

At the Endangered Wolf Center, Mexican gray wolves howl.
Photo by Michelle Steinmeyer | Endangered Wolf Center

Mexican wolves have gray-, rust- and buff-colored coats, often with distinguishing facial patterns, plus thick muzzles, bushy tails and oversized paws. Historically, hundreds of thousands of Mexican wolves lived throughout the southwestern U.S. and Mexico, but by the late 1970s, they had become extinct in the wild, with only seven remaining to launch a breeding program at the Endangered Wolf Center. Today, there are approximately 200 in the wild, all of which can trace their roots back to the center.

In 2016, the center pioneered a captive-to-wild foster program as a new approach to saving the species. Although there’s a growing population of adult Mexican wolves that are breeding in the wild, the critically low population size means there’s low diversity in their genetic pool. “When you’re talking about endangered species, genetics becomes a really important part of your conservation toolkit,” Mossotti says. “We have to make sure that the populations aren’t inbred and that the puppies are strong enough to survive.”

With pup fostering, if the stars align and Mexican wolf puppies are born at the center at the same time as a litter of wild Mexican wolves, a handful of the center’s puppies are flown to the recovery area in the southwestern U.S. and snuck into the wild mother’s den. “Then, she gets to raise those puppies as her own,” Mossotti says. “She teaches them how to hunt, to stay away from people and to establish a territory. When those puppies grow up and breed, they add new genetics into the gene pool and help make the population healthier.”

What mother would willingly raise puppies that aren’t hers, though? “We’ve developed the program based on observations and data,” Mossotti explains. “We know that wolf mothers are incredibly nurturing, and they just want to take care of the young.”

Since its inception, the pup fostering program has integrated 83 puppies, more than half of which came from the Endangered Wolf Center.

At the Endangered Wolf Center, kids, teenagers and adults can spot American red wolves.
Photo by Victoria Ziglar | Bright Coral Creative | Endangered Wolf Center

Like Mexican wolves, the American red wolves at the center have the opportunity to be released into the wild. Native to Missouri and most of the southeastern U.S., red wolves can only be found in a small area of North Carolina now. With only 20 left in the wild, they are critically endangered and true underdogs. Smaller than gray wolves, red wolves have a lankier appearance, with longer, thinner legs and tawny coats.

Last year, the Endangered Wolf Center, which has been part of the Red Wolf Recovery Program since its founding more than 40 years ago, finally got to release adult red wolves into the wild, and it released more this year.

“The American red wolf is the most endangered wolf in the world, and to me, that’s shocking because it’s our wolf – it’s native exclusively to the U.S.,” Mossotti says. “But most people don’t even know that it exists, much less that it’s on the brink of extinction.”

At the Endangered Wolf Center, which borders the Tyson Research Center and Lone Elk Park, the two species of wolf live in natural settings. And because they might be released into the wild, Mossotti says the staff is hands-off. “We don’t pet them. We don’t talk to them. We don’t hand-feed them. We don’t habituate them to humans. We let them be wild and maintain their natural instincts – and one of the most important natural instincts is to avoid humans. Wolves are actually very shy, and by keeping them away from humans, we make sure that when they’re released into the wild, they stay safe. We don’t want them to walk up to the wrong person and get hurt.”

That’s right – the Big Bad Wolf only exists in storybooks.

“Some of the biggest challenges that canids, especially the large canids, face is misinformation,” Mossotti says. “When we grow up with movies like Beauty and the Beast and Frozen, where the main characters are chased by wolves, we grow up fearing them, and when you fear something, you don’t want to conserve it. Our job at the Endangered Wolf Center is to undo that negative – and completely false – image.

“I’ve been lucky enough to work with wolves in the wild in many capacities; I’ve seen what they’re like in real life,” she continues. “They’re incredibly shy and family-oriented, and their family units actually mimic ours. The parents raise their puppies, protecting them, taking care of them, preparing them for their lives in the wild, and even from a distance, you can see the personalities of the individuals start to develop: One wants to be the leader someday, one is goofy and loves to play, one is the troublemaker. It’s just incredible to watch them.”

African Painted Dogs stand together at the Endangered Wolf Center.
Photo by Mark Hermes

Want to see the wolves for yourself? The Endangered Wolf Center offers a variety of daytime tours – from its signature endangered species tour to a specialized photography tour to field trips for schoolchildren – as well as nighttime howls. Education coordinator Jimmy Parsons can imitate each howl, and you might be lucky enough to hear the wolves howl back while learning more about wolf communication.

Visiting the center, you’ll also meet other species of canids, including arctic foxes, swift foxes and a melanistic red fox named Cooper. The South American maned wolves look like foxes on stilts, with long legs and a fire-red coat. Keep an eye out for Lucky, the only maned wolf ambassador in the world – and a real showstopper.

From the tallest to the smallest, the fennec foxes will also steal your heart. Native to the Sahara Desert, they weigh approximately two pounds, and their ears are bigger than their whole bodies. Honestly, they might be the cutest animal on the planet.

The African painted dogs, which never journey far from each other, are also arresting creatures. They have Mickey Mouse ears and a white, black and gold coat that could have been painted by a child.

Although it doesn’t have the obvious appeal of the canids, the new Richmond Family Veterinary and Nutrition Center is another point of pride. It allows the animal care department to provide the best care for the animals. In the state-of-the-art veterinary spaces, the center has begun semen banking in order to continue to increase the genetic diversity of wolf populations, and in the nutrition area, the staff keeps detailed charts of each animal’s diet to make sure they’re getting the proper nutrition.

The Richmond Family Veterinary and Nutrition Center is a recent addition to the Endangered Wolf Center.
Photo by Mark Hermes

To celebrate its 50-year legacy, the Endangered Wolf Center is hosting an event at the Saint Louis Zoo on Sept. 10. 50 and Still Wild will salute the groundbreaking work of the center thus far and look at the next steps to continue to grow its impact on the animals.

“If you look at the amazing work that we’ve done over the last 50 years, it’s above and beyond what any other institution like us has done,” Mossotti says. “But if we were able to do that then, imagine what we can do in the next 50 years. Among other things, we want to work with the communities in the recovery areas to grow their capacity as well as people’s pride in the fact that they live in a place that’s home to these unique, incredible and important species. For me, a St. Louisan, knowing that there’s a center in my own backyard that’s doing this much for conservation makes me so proud.”