Humans. Can't live with them, can't live without them. That's the conundrum facing the Endangered Wolf Center in west St. Louis County.
On most days, visitors are banned from the center, located within Tyson Research Center. And for good reason: The wolves must maintain their instinctive fear of humans if they are to survive in the wild.
And yet, the 40 wolves here need champions. More visitors would mean more money for the center's successful breeding programs, the cornerstone of national efforts to reintroduce the critically endangered Mexican gray wolf to the Southwest and the red wolf to North Carolina.
New advocates could combat society's image of the big bad wolf. Despite their portrayal in fairy tales and movies such as the newly released "The Grey," wolves play a vital role in nature. Without them, exploding deer and elk populations decimate the plants and trees that provide food and shelter for other species.
"I hear over and over again that we are St. Louis' best-kept secret," animal care director Regina Mossotti said. "That's not a good thing when you're a nonprofit. We need to get the word out about this center."
To boost its profile, the center has hired Virginia "Ginny" Busch to serve as its executive director. Busch, daughter of August Busch III, comes with a name that opens doors and pockets in this city. But she also brings a passion for wildlife and a history of helping endangered species across the globe. Busch, who starts work Monday, says her top goal is to open the center's steel gates to visitors. Only 10,000 visitors attended a tour or the center's evening wolf howls in 2010.
"I want it to be something akin to the Missouri Botanical Garden, the zoo, the World Bird Sanctuary, where people know about it and come," Busch said. "I want the doors to be open. The hours may be different, and there are things we may need to do differently than those institutions because of the needs of these animals."
Mossotti says she and her crew of keepers accept that the center must change its profile.
"We can't sacrifice one part of the mission for the other," she said. "It's vital that people fall in love with them the way we have. There are so many people in the recovery area (where wolves are released) that, I don't know any other word for it, hate wolves. They fear them. That's ingrained in our culture."
FROM GRANT'S FARM TO BUSCH GARDENS
Busch served for eight years as director of corporate conservation programs and president of the SeaWorld & Busch Gardens Conservation Fund. In that position, she distributed grants to wildlife programs across the globe. One of those programs was the Endangered Wolf Center.
She also managed a team of "animal ambassadors" that made media appearances on "The Tonight Show With Jay Leno" and other programs.
Busch understands the power of "charismatic species," the term conservationists use for animals that are particularly adorable or awe-inspiring. Get people to care about a giraffe, the thinking goes, and they care about the plants and animals that share the giraffe's habitat.
Maybe, maybe not. But Busch insists that wolves, with their long legs, doglike features and piercing howls, are irresistible. The center's maned wolves and African wild dogs are prime candidates to serve as ambassadors because they are not part of a reintroduction program.
"Having that up-close encounter with an animal creates that connection," Busch said. "It does not have to be anything where you touch an animal. We can respect what the wolves need and still educate the public."
She resigned from Busch Gardens two years ago when Busch Entertainment, then owned by Anheuser-Busch InBev, was sold to the Blackstone Group. Busch, who lives in Ladue, did not want to relocate to Florida.
"It was very hard for me to leave the job," said Busch, 32 and the mother of two young children, William and Amelia. "It was a good thing that I had children because they were my next adventure."
Busch grew up with animals. As a girl, she spent Sundays at Grant's Farm, the home of her grandfather, Gussie Busch. After he died in 1989, her family would travel on weekends to Busch Gardens in Florida.
"I have very vivid memories of him (Gussie Busch) driving his horse carriage through buffalo park and seeing all of these animals," Busch said. "As a kid, you're overwhelmed. And then going to (Busch Gardens) and seeing this African Serengeti that he created was amazing."
Busch attended Washington University, where she studied anthropology, focusing specifically on the relationship between animals and people in different cultures. Though she wanted to join the family business, she didn't care much about hops and beechwood aging.
"Beer is not as interesting animals," Busch said. "I was just happy that Busch Gardens parks were part of the business because I could channel my passion and still be a part of that company."
JOINING THE PACK
Busch's office will be in a trailer. The wood-paneled walls are covered with photos of Marlin Perkins, who founded the wolf center about 40 years ago, and actress Betty White, who was friends with Perkins and has been a supporter through the years.
Still, the center needs more than the occasional celebrity shout-out to regain its financial footing. It needs cash to cover its $800,000 annual operating budget and, perhaps, to buy a new site.
Landlord Washington University, which operates Tyson Research Center, asked the wolf center to find a new home so it could expand its programs. The wolf center bought a $5 million expanse of Jefferson County forest but could not afford to make payments on the property or build new facilities.
Last month, it unloaded the property, and its lender, Reliance Bank, forgave a chunk of the center's debt. Still, Busch said, the center is in no position to build another facility or launch a capital campaign. She would like to stay at Tyson.
Barbara Schaal, director of Tyson Research Center, said the wolf center is welcome to stay. Schaal is a member of the Endangered Wolf Center and has a picture of a mother wolf and her cubs on her office wall.
"We are all in this together," Schaal said of Busch. "There is a renewed sense of respect and cooperation on both sides. It would not make a lot of sense to ask them to go if they didn't have a really good place to go."
That said, Schaal wonders whether Tyson's ecological research projects could coexist with a public attraction.
"There are many, many programs here that simply cannot be disturbed," she said. "So the question is, how do we keep our research, which is the primary function of Tyson, safe and sound and protected but also interact with the public? That's a dialogue that has to happen."
Meanwhile, experts across the country are paying attention to the Endangered Wolf Center's health.
They agree that it saved the Mexican gray wolf, among the globe's most critically endangered species.
Each Mexican gray wolf in the wild — there are only 50 — was either born here or is the offspring a wolf born at the center.
The red wolf also faced extinction when the center started its reintroduction program. Today, about 70 red wolves roam in North Carolina.
Peter Siminski, head of the Mexican gray wolf Species Survival Plan and a director of conservation and education at the Living Desert University in Palm Desert, Calif., believes the center can increase attendance without compromising its role as breeder and protector of Mexican gray wolves.
"They played a big role from Marlin Perkins on and have a broad influence nationally with Mexican gray wolves and wolves in general," Siminski said.
"I don't think there is a problem with the wolves being habituated to humans. They have the large pens, so the wolves can get away from the humans. Even with more tours, their contribution will be great for a lot of reasons, from the large-size pens to the large number of wolves they have to the professionalism of the staff in managing their wolves."