The Endangered Wolf Center is posting video footage of its six newborn Mexican gray wolves on the Internet, hoping to generate plenty of "awwws" along with $3 million to overcome the worst fiscal crisis of its 40-year history.
The center's breeding program, the biggest in the nation, must move from Washington University's Tyson Research Center in far west St. Louis County. The university asked the center five years ago to find a new home so it could expand its own programs.
"We can't shut this place down," said Ralph Pfremmer, chairman of the wolf center's board. "We are unique in our ability to keep the species alive. The chances of the Mexican gray wolf going extinct are greatly enhanced if we're not here."
Regina Mossotti, the wolf center's director of animal care, hopes the public's boundless appetite for YouTube videos of hatching birds and tumbling kittens will extend to these steely-eyed predators.
"We have yearlings that were born last year, the new puppies that are only a month old and Mom and Dad, so people can see some pack behavior you rarely see in captivity," Mossotti said. "This is going to help them be successful if they are released into the wild. You'll see everything from the puppies playing, to tugging on the yearlings' tails, to the yearlings being disciplined by Mom and Dad because they are getting too rough with the puppies."
The Endangered Wolf Center was founded 40 years ago by Marlin Perkins, a longtime director of the St. Louis Zoo. Today the center is home to some 30 Mexican gray wolves and six red wolves. Both species are critically endangered.
The center has a $700,000 annual budget, raised entirely from grants and private donations. After learning that it needed to relocate, the center bought a $5 million piece of land in Jefferson County which, in retrospect, it could not afford, Pfremmer said. The center is selling that property to the Missouri Department of Natural Resources. For its new site, the center hopes to lease an 111-acre parcel near its current location from the St. Louis County Parks and Recreation Department.
"We've got to move, and that's going to cost money," Pfremmer said. "We've got to buy new pens and a visitors center. The service we provide the community is highly educational, and we need to raise awareness to the gem we are and the scientific importance of our work."
To that end, the center has reached out to previous donors, stepped up its online presence and changed its name from the Wild Canid Survival and Research Center to the Endangered Wolf Center because, really, who knows what a canid is?
"We are in a crisis situation where we are trying to rebuild the image," Pfremmer said.
The center has its work cut out. It does not have daily hours like the St. Louis Zoo or even the World Bird Sanctuary. Reservations are required for tours and events, such as its nighttime wolf howls. The center drew some 40,000 visitors last year.
"It's a magical experience to hear the wolves howling at night, but we're not a petting zoo, we're not a zoo," Pfremmer said. "We have very strict requirements about human touch. We encourage the wolves not to like us because we want to get them reintroduced into the wild."
And wolves are not cuddly like elephants or pandas. But they play a vital role in the ecosystem. Only 50 Mexican gray wolves live in the Blue Range wolf recovery area on the New Mexico-Arizona border. Poachers have killed many of the wolves released in the area.
"In the early 1900s, the government actually paid people to kill wolves," Mossotti said. "They thought if they killed them there would be lots of deer and elk, and it would be a hunters' paradise. But what they found is elk and deer ended up starving because there was no natural predator for them. They were decimating the trees and shrubs down to nothing, which hurt the animals that relied on that food source. People don't understand that, but our job is to educate them. It's hard for us to do that in the situation we are in now."