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May 17, 2012 at 7:00 AM

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Red wolf pups born at Tacoma zoo will give the public a glimpse of one of the world's rarest mammals

For nearly four decades, Washington has been the hub of a breeding program for endangered red wolves. But the public has rarely had a chance to oooh and aaah over the offpsring -- until now.

wolfpupcutie-001.JPG One of the new pups gets a his first physical Wednesday

A litter of eight pups, born this week at the Point Defiance Zoo & Aquarium in Tacoma, should begin venturing out of their den and into public view within three to four weeks. In the meantime, the zoo hopes to provide glimpses of the youngsters and their mom via a video feed. "It's a remarkable opportunity for the public to connect with this species," said Karen Goodrowe Beck, the zoo's general curator.

Millie with pups.JPG
A video screen grab shows Millie with some of her new pups in their den

With a wild population of about 100, red wolves are one of the rarest mammals. Even Africa's mountain gorillas far outnumber them. The Tacoma zoo played a key role in rescuing the wolves from extinction beginning in the 1970s.

Once common from Texas to Pennsylvania to Florida, the animals were hunted and trapped until all that remained was a remnant population on the Gulf Coast. Federal biologists captured the last 17 wolves and brought them to a breeding facility at Point Defiance Zoo's Northwest Trek Wildlife Park, in the shadow of Mount Rainier. The animals' descendants were eventually released into the wild in North Carolina's Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge, the first effort in the U.S. to re-establish a species in its native habitat.

Red wolves in the wild
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service photo

Smaller than gray wolves, red wolves are known for patches of reddish fur behind their ears and on their necks. They're often mistaken for coyotes, with which they interbreed.

The breeding program continues behind the scenes at Northwest Trek. Most of the animals born there now are destined for zoos that are part of a species conservation program, said Will Waddell, Point Defiance's red wolf program coordinator. The animals in captivity represent a living reserve that could be tapped in case catastrophe strikes the wild population, he explained. "We're a safety net."

To pump fresh blood into the wild population, biologists occasionally slip newborn pups from the captive breeding programs at Northwest Trek and other zoos into the litters of wild females, who raise them as their own.

Pups from a breeding program at a Chicago zoo are transplanted to the wild
USFWS photo

But the litter born to the 8-year-old female named Millie won't be going anywhere -- at least until they're grown. One of four red wolves in a new exhibit at the Tacoma zoo, Millie gave birth to the first two pups on Mother's Day. Then she kept going. Over the next 30 hours, she birthed six more pups. Zoo staff examined the newborns for the first time on Wednesday and found four males and four females.

wolf pups-mom004.JPG
Mother Millie keep a watchful eye out while zoo staff examine her pups
Photo courtesy Point Defiance Zoo & Aquarium

If all the youngsters survive, it's likely that some of them will be eventually moved to other zoos, to help boost their breeding programs, Waddell said.

Meanwhile, the wild wolves in North Carolina are facing many of the same threats as their gray cousins, which were reintroduced to the Rocky Mountains starting in 1995. Several red wolves are shot every year, and others are killed by cars. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service hopes to establish additional populations, but local residents are wary.

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Absolutely precious! Good job Point Defiance Zoo. MORE
The lil pup is so cute! MORE

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