Red wolf exhibit opening at Tacoma zoo

By Mike Archbold
Tacoma, Washington (AP) September 2010

Red wolves – and their haunting, high-pitched howls – are back at Point Defiance.

A breeding pair named Graham and Ocean Blue were released Monday into new, elegant digs at the Point Defiance Zoo & Aquarium, to be followed the next day by three more wolves – 3-year-old sisters Nami, Tala and Mika.

The red wolves left their zoo exhibit in July 2009 to make way for construction of their new exhibit. They have been staying at the zoo’s 7-acre red wolf breeding compound at Northwest Trek in Eatonville.

The animals’ new $1.1 million exhibit, called Red Wolf Woods, opened early september. and the zoo held a Wolf Fest through Monday. Festivities included educational activities for kids, mask-making, enrichment treats for the wolves, and special talks by the people who care for the wolves on a daily basis.

The exhibit befits Graham and Ocean’s status as being among the red wolf Adams and Eves needed for survival of their endangered species. Monday’s release was a special moment for zoo staff members who have worked for years on the program.

“It’s a dream come true,” zoo deputy director John Houck said of the new exhibit. “It’s something very special to the staff.”

Shortly before 3 p.m., staff members carried in the large animal crates and opened the doors. Graham, 8, and Ocean, 5, slipped out, bellies and noses close to the ground, eye darting. They quickly toured the treed area of their enclosure.

Graham soon lay down beneath a tree. Ocean kept a steady reconnoiter.

“I’m biased,” said Will Waddell, the red wolf program coordinator who has been at the zoo since 1986. “They are gorgeous.”

The pair of wolves had been there before but in the old, much smaller enclosures. Instead of Spartan cages of heavy rectangular chain-link fencing with no good viewing areas, “invisible fencing” gave a sense of no enclosure.

“We have overlooks for unobstructed views and a special glass viewing area that will allow visitors (and wolves) to get up close and personal,” Houck said.

With a small stand of hardwood trees, low grasses and shrubs, a stream and natal dens, the hillside exhibit is designed to mimic the red wolves’ native territory in the eastern United States.

“One den is an old root cellar with heaters,” Houck said. Another is a rock ledge.

The pair will occupy one of two 8,600-square-foot enclosures in the exhibit. If they breed successfully next spring, Houck said, the family probably will stay together there.

The exhibit includes a conservation center that offers information on the conservation program to save the red wolf and how people can get involved. The center is not finished.

In the 1970s, only 14 red wolves roamed the planet. Today, there are about 300, with many reintroduced into the wild. The exhibit honors the 40-year recovery program and the zoo’s role in it.

“Reproduction specialists, genetic-management experts, world-class veterinarians and top-notch animal care staff have joined together in Pierce County to keep this critically endangered species from going extinct,” Houck said.

Joining with the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, the zoo began its red wolf breeding program in 1973, and 14 years later released four adult pairs into their natural habitat. In 2007, the zoo won the nation’s top conservation award for its red wolf work.

More than 240 companies, foundations and individuals have contributed to paying for the new exhibit through the Zoo Society’s $7.15 million Vision for the Future capital campaign. The effort – which funded Kids’ Zone Phase 2 and Red Wolf Woods – is raising money for the clouded leopard exhibit and a zoo endowment.

All design and construction costs for the wolf exhibit were paid for with private grants and donations, said Caryl Zenker, executive director of The Zoo Society, the nonprofit fundraising arm of the zoo.

Campaign co-chairwoman Tina De Falco noted that the Zoo Society is at 83 percent of its goal, the largest private campaign in the zoo’s history.

“With support from the Puyallup Tribe of Indians, Gary E. Milgard Family Foundation, The Boeing Co. and hundreds of others – including 100 percent of zoo and Zoo Society staff, we have been able to give this species the honor it deserves,” she said.

The tribe came through with the largest donation: $550,000.

Jenn Donovan and Natalie Bogues were all smiles. The wolves were and are again their charges. Both keepers recently traveled to South Carolina to work with a red wolf field team that was introducing the animals back into the wild. Some 39 other zoos participate in the restoration program.

“This is extraordinary,” Donovan said. “The thing I like best is the wolves have so many different choices: the water, the grassy knolls, the trees.”

The new exhibit gives the public a chance to understand how important the animals are, Bogues said.

“They are our flagship species,” she said.