Tis the season for special deliveries! The WNC Nature Center awaited some very precious cargo on Saturday, November 20, when a critically endangered red wolf was flown to the Asheville Regional Airport from New Jersey aboard a 1982 Piper Saratoga.
The aircraft’s pilot was Michael Schneider, Founder and Executive Director of Pilots To The Rescue (PTTR). The nonprofit was created in 2015 to support a network of trained volunteer pilots to transport and rescue animals. “We’re mostly known for our work with cats and dogs,” Schneider explained, “but it’s a real privilege to be able to transfer an endangered species like this red wolf.” The aircraft did not head back north empty; PTTR returned home to New Jersey-based nonprofit Home for Good with dogs from Aiken, South Carolina that were at risk of euthanization.
Rebecca Bose, Curator of the Wolf Conservation Center (WCC) in South Salem, New York, came along for the journey to Asheville to ensure the red wolf’s safe transport to the WNC Nature Center’s care. The WCC works to protect and preserve both the Mexican gray wolf and the American red wolf through education, advocacy, and participation in the federal recovery
and release programs for these species.
Red wolf M2235, also known as Ben, was born at the WCC in 2018. For the past three years, he had been living off exhibit with his mother, father, and siblings. “Ben is a favorite at the Wolf Conservation Center,” says Bose, “and we’re excited to be able to fly him down here first class where he will meet his new mate, start a new life, and hopefully have some puppies of his own!”
It took about four hours to fly Ben from New Jersey to North Carolina, making the transfer time only a third of what it would have been driving. Erin Oldread, Animal Curator at the WNC Nature Center, was extremely grateful to the Wolf Conservation Center and Pilots to the Rescue for coordinating this special flight. “In terms of safety and general comfort, flying him to Asheville reduced travel time and undue stress for Ben.”
Oldread and Vet Technician Lori Hyatt arrived at the Asheville Regional Airport in the Friends of the WNC Nature Center’s “Wild Wagon” to take Ben the rest of the way to his new home. “When we got permission to drive onto the tarmac, the employees there thought we were trying to catch a red wolf that was loose in the airfields,” Oldread recalls. “Most people don’t realize just how critically endangered red wolves are or that they can only be found in the wild in one place in the world.”
In October, US Fish and Wildlife estimated that there are only 15 to 17 red wolves living in the wild in Eastern North Carolina. And there are 241 red wolves living under human care in places like the WNC Nature Center. The WNC Nature Center has been involved with the American Red Wolf Recovery Program since 1990, when they began exhibiting red wolves for the first time.
Between 1996 and 2014, 13 pups have been born at the Nature Center.
Red wolves Karma and Garnet came to Asheville in fall 2018. For the past two years, they have not successfully reproduced. Because red wolves are so critically endangered, the Association of Zoos and Aquariums’ Species Survival Plan program recommended that a new breeding pair of red wolves be transferred to the WNC Nature Center. This transition will be completed in the coming months. In September, Garnet went to the Endangered Wolf Center in Eureka, Missouri, and Karma will be leaving in spring 2022. After Ben successfully quarantined, he and Karma were placed together for companionship and will remain together until the new female is transferred to the WNC Nature Center.
While there is a long road ahead for the species’ ultimate recovery, Oldread is cautiously optimistic about the Nature Center’s role. “We’re proud to be part of the Species Survival Plan program for red wolves, and we’re hopeful that our new red wolves will be able to reproduce successfully in the future to have offspring that could potentially be released in the wild and help grow the population.”
From Species Survival Plan recommendations to the transportation of the red wolves, collaboration is key in ensuring the future of this species. As Bose shared before flying back to New Jersey, “We’re all here on the same team trying to fight the good fight to get these wolves back on the landscape.”
Community members and supporters of red wolf conservation have a role to play as well. With breeding red wolves at the WNC Nature Center, the community can help support a local effort to save these critically endangered animals. Donations can be made online at www.wildwnc.org/donate or mailed to Friends of the WNC Nature Center, PO Box 19151, Asheville, NC, 28815. Gifts of $100 or more will be matched up to $2,500 by Weiler Woods for Wildlife, a red wolf conservation partner with the Friends of the WNC Center, through the end of the year.