Meet the Red Wolf Pups at Durham's Museum of Life and Science
July 10, 2017
Four red wolf pups are growing up fast at Durham’s Museum of Life and Science. Born tiny and blind on April 28th, the pups are just now learning to stand on their own and take their first wobbly steps.
The pups have more than tripled in size in the first few weeks of their lives, but the museum’s animal department director Sherry Samuels says the wolf-pups are still in a very vulnerable place.
“The first 30 days are critical for survival,” Samuels said. “Any little scratch can lead to sepsis and death.”
The litter originally had six pups but, tragically, two of the six died in the first few days, either from infection or being pinned in the wrong place by their mother. Samuels says that while the remaining four are not out of the woods yet, the fact that they are gaining weight and beginning to move around more on their own is a promising sign.
Every pup is important, as red wolves are one of the most critically endangered species on Earth. Formerly a top predator species that spread from Texas to Pennsylvania and east to the Atlantic Ocean, there are roughly 100 red wolves left alive in the wild, and they survive only in Eastern North Carolina.
While these wolves were born in captivity, the Museum of Life and Science, along with the other 43 institutions of the Red Wolf Species Survival Plan (SSP) aim to build a robust captive population that can one day be reintroduced into the wild. As such the methods the animal keepers at Life and Science use to care for the pups emphasize not only the best care and monitoring, but also the least amount of human contact.
The wolf dens in the exhibit are fitted with cameras so the animal keepers can monitor the pups without disturbing them or their mother. When they do have to remove the pups, Samuels says the keepers pull them out of the den while their mother is away, weigh them, do a physical exam, administer any medications the pups might need and put them back in less than 10 minutes.
The keepers always wear gloves and long sleeves to prevent their scent from getting on the pups and they even choose long-lasting medications instead of multiple-dose drugs so they do not need to disturb the pups as often.
At the rate the remaining pups are growing, however, performing quick tests might become trickier.
“They’re trying to crawl out of our bucket now, and as they move more, hopefully it would be a little harder to do our stuff,” Samuels said. “Those would be good problems to have.”
The pups are in for an eventful few months. They are reaching the phase of their lives when they start to get fuzzier, and their snouts, ears and teeth become more defined, and now that they are taking their first wobbly steps, they should be more independently mobile in the next few weeks.
Up to this point, they have drinking their mother’s milk exclusively, but at about 5 weeks old, the pups will start taking food their mother regurgitates for them, and by 8-9 weeks old they should be fully weaned.
By the time they reach full puppy cuteness, Samuels says, she and other members of the SSP will begin focusing on the pups’ future. Each July, the SSP members meet to report on how many new pups have been born. Samuels says that number fluctuates year-to-year as shown by the 13 born in 2015 and the more than 50 born last year.
At that meeting, the SSP decides whether to move the yearlings at the point when they would normally leave their parents: the point, Samuels says, when the parents mate again and produce a new litter.
If the rest of the institutions in the SSP have a slow breeding year, the pups might go to another zoo or preserve to help boost that population. What Samuels hopes, however, is that the rest of the SSP had a similarly successful year, in which case, the pups will stay in Durham.
“I hope we have a big, crowded exhibit,” Samuels said.
Either way, the pups will stay in the exhibit at Life and Science until their mother gets pregnant again, where Samuels says everyone who sees them feels something for them.
“Everyone who sees them is connected to them,” Samuels said. “They are a great species: a treasure of North Carolina, the only place where they run free.”
You can hear more about the pups' progress and see more pictures on the Museum of Life and Science's animal department blog, here.
Daniel Lane covers science, medicine, engineering and the environment in North Carolina.