As Spirit and Carmen prowl through the grass, slyly eyeing a 9-pound deer leg, they remain vigilant, choosing not to pounce on their food until long after the nearby humans are gone.
To the two red wolves, their environment closely mimics what they’d experience in the wild. And to the watching visitors at the Texas Zoo, the red wolves are in an exhibit that is intentionally crafted to do just that, for a very important reason.
“We want to bridge the gap between what’s going on in the zoo versus what’s going on in the wild, and to understand what’s going on with red wolves is important,” said Elizabeth Jensen, the executive director of the Texas Zoo.
Though the zoo has had red wolves since the 1990s, the effort to embrace and prioritize red wolf conservation is relatively new, she said.
Jensen, who began her role right around the time Hurricane Harvey struck, attended a workshop in November 2018 at the Endangered Wolf Center in Eureka, Mo., where she learned new methods and techniques to best care for red wolves.
“We’re just now starting to really do our part in terms of red wolf conservation,” she said. “I think before we were just getting along, but I think now, we’ll start building upon what we have and seeing what we can do to do more and contribute to their conservation.”
Historically, wolves have always gotten a bad rap with people, Jensen said. Ranchers in particular can “get up in arms” about red wolves or other wolves because they don’t want to lose livestock, she said.
But the benefits of having wolves in the wild are very clear, Jensen said. For example, red wolves help keep the deer population and other species healthier and more robust because they single out the sick, Jensen said.
“So a healthy wolf population means you have a healthy deer population, meaning from an ecological standpoint, they are very important,” she said.
Red wolves were in the wild in North Carolina until fairly recently, Jensen said, when, after a number of lawsuits, courts ruled that red wolves are required to be reintroduced into the wild.
The specifics of the location and other details regarding reintroducing red wolves into the wild are still being decided, Jensen said. For now, the Texas Zoo is joining other zoo and wolf centers to do its part to aid in the conservation efforts.
An important step in those efforts, Jensen said, is creating a habitat for the wolves that mimics what their habitat would be in the wild.
To do so, staff at the zoo treat the two red wolves very differently than they treat the zoo’s other animals. They don’t train or form relationships with the wolves, but rather, they work to simulate the most natural habitat for the endangered animals as possible. The wolves’ exhibit is intentionally left unkempt to simulate a more natural habitat.
“Even with feeding, our staff drop in food and water as needed into the exhibit, but take the care not to do more than they have to,” she said. “If we were to put in a whole deer carcass, for example, you could go without going into that exhibit for several days.”
Some zoos and wolf centers are breeding red wolves, Jensen said, so their population becomes greater and whole wolf packs can be introduced into the wild. Jensen said Carmen and Spirit do not appear compatible for breeding, but still play an important role.
Like the other animals at the zoo, the two red wolves are visited by a veterinarian annually. During the visit, the veterinarian takes the vitals of the wolves among other things.
After the vet visited in December, some of the blood drawn from the wolves was sent to a red wolf blood bank at Arkansas State University, Jensen said, which is likely used for research purposes.
“Any way we can, we want to contribute,” she said.
Next year, Jensen said she hopes to send members of the zoo’s wildlife care staff to the same workshop so they can receive the hands-on training and education she did. When reflecting on the wolves’ importance, she pointed out that the zoo’s logo is of a howling wolf, something she said makes her proud.
“They are part of our heritage, a part of our culture, and not having wolves in the wild would be a very sad day,” Jensen said. “We’re a small zoo that’s going to do big things.”