Wolves once inhabited most of the United States and reigned as the apex predator. They benefited the ecosystem by hunting larger prey that didn’t have any other natural predators. This kept populations such as elk, deer, and antelope in check so that they didn’t overgraze vegetation and remove vital habitat for birds, butterflies and other species. Wolves mostly hunt weak or sick animals, so this also helped maintain the health of the prey species. However, the number of wolves was dramatically depleted over the years due to loss of habitat and human eradication of wolves and other large carnivores. People killed wolves out of fear of losing livestock and from indoctrinated fears learned through stories such as Little Red Riding Hood and Peter and the Wolf. These types of fears were unfounded since there was no record of a human fatality caused by wolf attacks in North America during the 20th century. There were some cases of wolf attacks that did not end in fatality, but these were rare and very few were unprovoked and often sick or habituated wolves. Of course there were cases of wolves spreading rabies which is true of other animals and this has decreased overall with the introduction of the rabies vaccine and diligence of controlling this outbreak in domestic as well as wild populations. By the middle of the 20th century, wolves were extinct in many of the lower 48 states and only a small population remained in Minnesota and Isle Royal in Michigan.
This is what prompted Marlin Perkins and his wife Carol to work with others to form the Endangered Wolf Center. Marlin Perkins was renowned as the host on the Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom and as the second full time director at the Saint Louis Zoo. The EWC was formed in 1971 with the goal of breeding wolves, releasing them back into the wild, doing research, and educating the public about these amazing animals. The Endangered Wolf Center has been doing this for about 40 years at its facility near St. Louis, Missouri. It has become recognized as the only AZA certified wolf facility in the world and has led the reintroduction of Mexican wolves and red wolves back into the wild. Today, all wild packs of Mexican wolves can trace their lineage back to the Endangered Wolf Center. The EWC has also been active in breeding and reintroducing red wolves into the wild. They also breed other endangered species such as maned wolves and African painted dogs.
The Endangered Wolf Center offers several opportunities to visit their facility. I have had the privilege of attending their open house a few times where guests can see the animal habitats and some of the animals as well as learn more about the work they are doing to save these species. My personal favorite is the wolf howl. I have been to this twice, once with a church group and once with my co-workers from the Saint Louis Zoo. At the wolf howl, you meet at night around the campfire and an educator shares some wolf stories. Of course these stories show the wolf in a positive light or as they really are in real life and not as maneating animals as portrayed in Little Red Riding Hood. Then, everyone is led on a walk down a dirt road some distance from the wolf enclosures. This all happens at night when it is dark. Then, the worker howls to see if the wolves will howl back. Guests are then invited to howl and then you wait with anticipation to see if you are rewarded with a real wolf howl. The first time I went, we were rewarded by the haunting sound of the wolf howl. I was really excited to hear it myself, but even more so since my friend had brought her young son who really loves wolves. The next time I went, we didn’t hear any wolves, but it was still a cool experience. (Since I work at a zoo and have always had pet dogs, I know you can’t guarantee what the animals will or won’t do.) These experiences made me think of how cool it would be to actually hear these animals out in the wild someday. The Endangered Wolf Center also offers other experiences such as tours and camps. You can learn more by visiting their website at https://www.endangeredwolfcenter.org/ .