Red Wolf Travel Journal

Of the six pups at the Pritzker Family Children's Zoo in late April 2009, four were selected to be "fostered" to wild dens.

Lincoln Park Zoo’s red wolf pair produced a litter of six pups in late April 2009. As part of the conservation effort for this critically endangered species, Lincoln Park Zoo partnered with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Red Wolf Recovery Program to “foster” four of the pups to wild parents. Veterinarian Owen Slater, D.V.M., offers a firsthand account as he and Curator Diane Mulkerin transport the pups for reintroduction, traveling from Lincoln Park Zoo to North Carolina’s Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge (ARNWR).

Wednesday April 29
Late last week our red wolf pair had six live puppies born at the zoo. All have been doing well thanks to the attentive care of their parents.

Veterinarian Owen Slater, D.V.M. conducts an examination of one of the pups, held by Keeper Erin Hennessy. All were in excellent health.

Lincoln Park Zoo’s partnership with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Red Wolf Recovery Program means that each new litter bears the possibility of zoo-born pups being fostered into wild red wolf packs in North Carolina’s Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge. The placement of zoo-born pups into similarly aged wild litters has boosted the wild population of this critically endangered carnivore.

After communicating with the Red Wolf Species Survival Plan® coordinator, it was determined that several dens in the wild with similar-aged offspring could potentially receive our pups. However, it was unknown when a potential den would be found or if we would be able to coordinate getting our pups out to the wild in time.

I was in the middle of a procedure with one of the zoo’s primates when I was approached by General Curator Megan Ross about accompanying Diane Mulkerin (Curator of the Pritzker Family Children’s Zoo and Regenstein Small Mammal-Reptile House) and four of our pups to North Carolina on Friday, May 1. Although I was due to go on holiday starting Friday, I gladly put that on hold as one of the main reasons I chose this area of veterinary medicine was to help conserve endangered species. I was thrilled to be directly involved in the care, transport and release of these four endangered red wolf pups to the wild.

Friday May 1, 2009
Flights were arranged through the zoo’s partnership with United Airlines, and I woke up at 4 a.m. to pack my things for today’s trip to North Carolina.

I arrived at Lincoln Park Zoo at 5:15 a.m. to microwave the warming disks, which stay warm for several hours, and place them into the carriers beneath a towel. Another towel would then be draped over the carrier to keep the pups warm as they were transported.

Supplies ready, I drove over to the Pritzker Family Children’s Zoo. On the way past the outdoor red wolf exhibit I spotted Blaze and Tanner (our adult female and male wolves) patrolling their outdoor exhibit. They had been removed from the indoor den area so we could easily work with the pups.

Inside were Keepers Michael Brown-Palsgrove and Erin Hennessy, Curator Diane Mulkerin and Director of Public Relations Sharon Dewar. Together, we entered the den area and lifted the lid on the large den box. All six pups were curled together, their stomachs full from just nursing. Each pup was gently removed from the den and brought to an area we had set up to weigh and examine them. They were all scanned to ensure the microchips that had been implanted to confirm their identities were still working.

The pups' eyes had yet to open when they were chosen for reintroduction. It's essential to "foster" them at a young age to ensure acceptance by wild mothers.

The pups were then weighed; all had nearly doubled in weight over the past week. I performed a physical examination on all the pups to make sure they had no health issues. They still had their eyes closed—the eyes weren’t expected to open for at least several more days—but they were all in excellent condition, with no health concerns. None of them made a sound as I examined them.

Three females and one male were selected and placed in one carrier. The two remaining males (the biggest of the litter) were placed back in the den box to remain at the zoo and be taken care of by Blaze and Tanner. They are likely to grow exponentially with four fewer mouths to feed.

With the pups secure (and asleep) in their carrier, Curator Diane Mulkerin waits to be checked in at O'Hare International Airport.

We packed our supplies and the carriers with the puppies into the van. Michael drove Diane and I to O’Hare International Airport. Our United Airlines flight was due to depart at 9:19 a.m., arriving into Norfolk, Virginia at 12:24 p.m. Traffic to the airport was surprisingly not too bad by Chicago standards—it took us about 30 minutes. Michael wished us good luck, and we headed off into the airport.

Mulkerin, the pups and Kevin, a helpful United Airlines representative, head to the terminal.

Diane called the United Airlines representative (Kevin) that was scheduled to escort us through the check-in process. Kevin was great and equally as excited to be helping us and the red wolf pups reach North Carolina. We walked past the long check-in line to an area behind the main counter, where he had us wait as he completed the check-in process. He then took us through the VIP security line. We were greeted by a very straight-faced TSA security officer, who took out boarding passes and checked our IDs without once cracking a smile at the situation.

To prevent the puppies from being radiographed, we were going to carry them in hand through the metal detectors while the rest of our luggage went through the X-ray machine. Diane and I put on latex gloves, picked up two puppies each and walked them through the line. Onlookers quickly noticed the tiny puppies we had in hand, and soon we were the center of attention. The TSA security personnel placed our bags at the front of the line and quickly scanned them so we could load the pups back into the carrier.

Kevin then escorted us to our gate, but just before we arrived, he asked if we would like to wait in the Red Carpet Lounge reserved for club members. We couldn’t turn this offer down, of course, so off we went into the lounge, and we were certainly glad we did. Inside were leather sofas and chairs, with phones on each coffee table for our personal use and a continental breakfast buffet complete with coffee, juice, yogurt, applesauce, bagels and cream cheese, brownies and fresh fruits. Never being one to turn down free food I loaded up my plate and had a nice early-morning snack. Using the phone, I called Megan to let her know that everything was going well and we were being given the VIP treatment at the airport.

After our breakfast, Diane took all of the pups into a bathroom and stimulated each of them to urinate and defecate, a behavior that Blaze would perform, as pups this young will not urinate and defecate on their own. Kevin returned shortly thereafter and took us to our gate, where he had already informed the United Airlines crew who we were.

Diane lucked out and managed to get a seat in first class. She took the pups with her so they could get well settled before the rest of the passengers (and I) boarded. Thankfully, there were no delays, and our flight took off on time. The quick two-hour flight to Norfolk, Virginia was uneventful, and the pups slept through the entire flight.

A quick check of the carrier showed that the pups were still comfortably sleeping after landing in Virginia.

Once we landed, we quickly checked the pups, and all were resting comfortably. Norfolk was certainly well into spring compared to Chicago: all the trees had their leaves fully out, and the azaleas were in full bloom. I got the rental car and we started our two-hour drive down to Manteo, the headquarters for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s (USFWS) Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge where the Red Wolf Recovery Program is based.

North Carolina's 152,000-acre Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge is home to two red wolf packs. The surrounding landscape hosts 18 more, for a total of more than 100 individuals.

Diane called the crew at the office and informed them we were on our way. This was the cue for them to send two people out to start finding den sites so that we could quickly get the pups into their new homes.

The weather in south Virginia/northern North Carolina was quite warm and humid, and we had to close the car windows and put the air conditioning on as the pups started moving away from each other to dissipate their body heat. After a few minutes with the air conditioning on, they all settled down and went back to sleep.

We arrived at the office in good time and met up with Mike Morse, one of the USFWS red wolf biologists. Diane updated him on the pups and our trip while I took the pups to the bathroom to assess them and encourage them to urinate and defecate. All were doing great, and none required any supplemental feeding. After the office personnel had a quick peek at the pups, we loaded them into the truck and headed out to the field.

On the drive out Mike updated us on the potential den sites. Both were actually outside the Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge on privately owned land that was being used for the recovery program. The total land available for the Red Wolf Recovery Program is 1.5 million acres. The Wildlife Refuge, which is “only” 152,000 acres, holds two packs; the surrounding landscapes hosts 18 more, for a total of more than 100 individuals. (Visit for more info about the project.)

Signage cautions motorists to be alert for the endangered predators.

Our drive took us through ARNWR, and we passed a sign cautioning motorists to be careful on a section of the road, as it was a red wolf corridor. We made our way into the countryside around Columbia and turned onto a dirt road. The surrounding habitat was a mixture of pocosin (swamp-like) forests and farmers’ fields with drainage ditches to prevent the fields from flooding.

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologist Art Beyer crawls into a red wolf den to search for pups.

After taking several small dirt roads, we turned into a field that was not currently being farmed and had gone fallow. We stopped, and Mike informed us that Art and Ryan (two other USFWS red wolf biologists) were currently searching for the red wolf den about one mile away in the thick brush. The den sites are very well concealed. It would be nearly impossible to find them except for the fact that each female is radio collared and will stay near the den site when the pups are very young. Therefore, they can track the female to within a small radius of the den and then start the search for the den based on her position.

After about 10 minutes a truck appeared at the end of the field and stopped. With binoculars we were able to see that it was Art’s truck, and we drove down to meet him. After brief introductions, he told us that they had just found the den, and Ryan was waiting at the den site so the adult female wolf wouldn’t come back and take the pups to a new den prior to us placing our pups. The ideal den size is three–five pups, and as there were two wild pups in the den, it was decided to place only two of our pups there.

The single male and a female were selected. After scanning their microchips, Art took blood samples for genetic banking so they would be able to identify each pup based on their DNA. (This is very useful, as they can monitor the wolves by collected feces and use that to determine where the animals have moved.) Once the samples were collected, Diane took the pups, and we headed into the brush. The weeds and grasses were at least seven–eight feet tall in sections, and there were thorns on some of the bushes, so it made for tough walking.

After tracking a female red wolf to a general area by her radio collar, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologist Ryan Nordsven located her den beneath some grass.

After about 10 minutes, we reached the den site and found Ryan. It was surprising to see that the “den” was simply a bunch of dead grass that had blown over a small depression in the field. Art and Ryan had found the den by crawling on their stomachs through the grass until they came across the two pups. Ryan parted the grass, reached into the den and brought out the pups. Their eyes were open, and they were probably about a week older than our pups, but they were similar enough in size that our pups would do well in this new pack.

After locating the den, Beyer removed one of the wild-borne pups to prepare for the introduction.

We placed all the pups together for a brief meeting prior to placing them all back in the den site. We then retraced our tracks out and back to the trucks. Mike said the adult wolves typically return shortly after scientists leave the den site, moving the pups to a new location after they smell the human presence. The radio-collared female will periodically be tracked by aerial flyovers to determine her location, but the den site will not be visited again this year. In the fall, the pups will be trapped for placement of intra-abdominal radio transmitters so they can be further monitored. Once they’re full-grown, radio collars will be placed to aid conservation monitoring.

Curator Diane Mulkerin carries the zoo-born red wolf pups to their new home in the wild.

With the first pups successfully placed in their new den, we headed to find a second pack and den site. Because the first den site was so hard to find, Art and Ryan hadn’t had time to radio track the second female. Therefore, we drove to the last known den site for this pack. Along the way, we came across a timber rattlesnake that was basking on the road to soak up the last remaining sunlight for the day. Mike stopped so that I could take a few photos before heading on to the den.

Before placign the male pup in the den, the biologists collected a blood sample to enable future DNA identification.

When we reached the den, which was placed in the bank of one of the ditches alongside a field, there were no signs of recent wolf activity and no signal was heard when we tried searching for the female. Art checked the den site, but no pups were present. With the sun due to set in about 1–1.5 hours, we had to work quickly to find the female and her den site. Therefore we split into two teams: Art and Ryan headed in one direction to radio track the female while Mike, Diane and I went another direction to search for her.

We drove up and down several roads, seeing lots of deer but not getting any signal from the female. It was coming up onto an hour before dark, and we still hadn’t received a signal. By this point we had fanned out almost five miles from the original den site.

Mike commented that it would be very atypical for a female to move her pups such a large distance in such a short time, and he was getting worried that we weren’t going to find the den site. During this time I had been periodically checking on the two remaining pups in the carrier. They were starting to get hungry, so I made a highly concentrated sugar water mixture that I gave to each of them. This settled them down, but I knew we were either going to have to find the den site soon or Diane and I would be spending the night hand-feeding the pups the milk-replacement formula I had brought in case this happened.

We then got a phone call from Art. They had found the female, and she was located only about half a mile from the den site we had just checked. We raced back to the site and saw Art and Ryan running through the field. They had spotted the adult female and wanted to get to the spot she had just left to see if it was a den site. We were in luck. The female had just left her new den, which was an old culvert that had been buried into the field. Somehow the female had figured out that there was a metal culvert underneath the dirt and had dug down to it. Inside were two pups that she had likely been tending to, which explained why we weren’t able to pick up her signal on the radio collar.

Researchers attempting to radio track the second female before daylight ran out.

By this point we only had about 10–15 minutes of light left. We quickly grabbed the blood-sampling supplies and the two puppies and headed to the den site. Art and Mike took the blood samples from the two female pups as Ryan tried to crawl far enough into the culvert to reach the wild puppies. They were too far back in the den to reach, but by using my small digital camera we were able to get some photos of them that showed they were almost the exact size as our pups, with their eyes just starting to open.

After Art and Mike finished collecting the blood samples, I gave each of zoo-born pups a bit more sugar solution to carry them over until their new mother returned. Mike commented that thankfully red wolves aren’t very good at counting! Experience has shown them that the adult females will quickly bond with the new puppies and treat them as their own.

The zoo-born pups were added to the secluded den, where they joined their wild siblings. This brought this portion of the reintroductoion program to a successful conclusion.

With that, we packed up our supplies and headed back to the truck. Everyone was exhausted from such a long day, but it was worth it. Lincoln Park Zoo had just made a significant contribution to the ongoing Red Wolf Recovery Program. With these new arrivals, the number of red wolf pups in the wild had just increased 10 percent.


By Owen Slater, D.V.M.  Published July 2009