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All About Wolves: Rescuing the Red Wolf

Red Wolf Fact Sheet

Adult Wolf Picture


The red wolf is twice as big as a coyote and about half the size of a gray wolf. Adult females average 52 pounds and adult males average 61 pounds. Their name comes from their reddish-brown hair coat. Red wolves have tall, pointed ears and long legs with big feet. Adults stand about 26 inches tall at the shoulder and are about 4 1/2 feet long from the tip of their snout to the end of their tail.


Historically, red wolves were found throughout the southeastern United States. Their current mainland range is eastern North Carolina at the Alligator River National Wildlife refuge and eastern Tennessee in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. A few red wolves have also been reintroduced to small islands off the coasts of South Carolina, Florida, and Mississippi.


Red wolves were eliminated in the southeastern United States by trapping, poisoning, shooting, and destruction of critical habitat. By the mid-1960s the few remaining red wolves were restricted to isolated areas along the Gulf coast of Louisiana and Texas. These surviving wolves were in terrible physical condition. The most obvious problem was "sarcoptic mange" (a skin disease) caused by a tiny external parasite. Some of the wolves had rubbed and scratched away most of their hair trying to relieve the itching caused by the parasite. An even more serious problem was "heartworm." This internal parasite is carried by mosquitoes and injected into the animal's bloodstream as the mosquito is feeding. Adult worms live in the wolf's heart and cause severe health problems that can lead to death.

Wolf Pup Picture Because of the red wolves' poor physical condition, loss of habitat, and persecution by man, biologists from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service came to the conclusion that the only way to save the red wolf was to take it out of the wild.

Animals thought to be pure red wolves were flown to the captive breeding program, managed by the Point Defiance Zoo in Tacoma, Washington. Of the 400 animals biologists captured, only 17 were certified as pure red wolves. The others were part coyote, part red wolf. Both wolves and coyotes are members of the canine family (dogs and foxes are also canines) and many had mated over the years, creating a hybrid, or mixed-breed canine. In only a few decades, a magnificent predator that had roamed the southeastern United States for centuries had been reduced to less than 20 animals.

The red wolf capture program ended in 1980. In the autumn of that same year, genetically pure red wolves were considered to be extinct in the wild.

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