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Photo Endangered Wolf Center
An African painted dog tends to a litter of pups born at the Endangered Wolf Center.
St. Louis Public Radio | By Evie Hemphill
The Mexican wolf is one of the most endangered wolf species in the world, with only a few hundred left in the wild.
Back in January, long before most Americans were suddenly stocking up on groceries and other essentials, Regina Mossotti and her colleagues were already paying close attention to COVID-19 headlines. They decided to order several months’ worth of food — for their wolves, that is. And now, they’re glad they did.
Mossotti, a wildlife biologist, is director of animal care and conservation at the Endangered Wolf Center in Eureka, Missouri. While some staff members now work from home, Mossotti and other animal caregivers are continuing their essential on-site roles, even as they’ve had to temporarily shut down the educational programs so critical to the nonprofit’s revenue.
“We won’t let the care of our animals be affected,” she has said.
It’s not just about the specific wolves currently in their care; it’s about saving entire species from extinction, including the Mexican wolf and the American red wolf.
On Monday’s St. Louis on the Air, Mossotti joined host Sarah Fenske to discuss how the nearly 50-year-old nonprofit is adapting its efforts during this pandemic — and brainstorming alternative funding streams.
Mossotti noted that the popular conception of wolves — from fairy tales onward — brings challenges to conservation work.
“Even modern movies like ‘Frozen’ and ‘Beauty and the Beast’ have wolves chasing main characters in them. And wolves in real life are actually very shy,” she said. “They run away from people; they want nothing to do with them.
“So it’s the exact opposite of what you see on TV. And what [TV] does is it makes people think there’s this big scary animal, and if you’re scared of something, you don’t want to save it. And we put a lot of effort into saving wolves, because they are what’s called a keystone species, which means they are very important to keeping an ecosystem healthy.”
That makes the educational aspects of the Endangered Wolf Center critical. Its naturalist-guided tours and other programs aim to open visitors’ eyes to important knowledge about various species.
But as the COVID-19 crisis continues, center staff have had to get creative about those educational efforts.
“We’ve created virtual meet and greets where you can meet some of our animals and our incredible expert animal-keeper staff one on one,” Mossotti said. “And one of the reasons we developed this is because we know there’s a lot of parents at home right now who are struggling to find STEM-based content for filling in some of those science classes, and it’s a great way to do it. And by signing up for those programs, you’re helping to contribute to the conservation work that we do.”
Mossotti also shared some exciting news on the show: Mexican wolf couple Vera and Mack just welcomed a new litter of five.
“Spring is puppy season at the wolf center,” she said. “That’s one of the big reasons that we had to prepare and make sure we had enough food, is to take care of these mamas and their new puppies. … Mexican wolves are critically endangered with only about 200 left in the wild, most of which are found in Arizona and New Mexico.”
Unlike a roadside zoo or a sanctuary, the Endangered Wolf Center focuses on conservation. The goal for some of its animals, including the Mexican wolf and American red wolf, is to foster them back into the wild. Those two species are the most endangered wolves in the world.
“We work with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to release them back to where they’re native, to get those endangered populations up in the wild so that we can help preserve that species,” Mossotti said. “We also do research; we’re a scientific facility that learns more about the animals. The more we learn about them and know about them, the better decisions we make in regards to conservation.”