By Matt McKnight
EATONVILLE, Washington, Oct 25 (Reuters) - The endangered red wolf, the lone wolf species native only to the United States, is slowly coming back thanks to a breeding and reintroduction program that also takes special care of the wolves' teeth.
The Tacoma-based Point Defiance Zoo is conducting dental exams and teeth-cleaning in its managed care program. Broken teeth "would prevent them from eating meat very well," said Karen Wolf, the zoo's head veterinarian.
The fittingly named vet is helping bolster a population of only 270 red wolves known to exist, mostly in managed care or zoos. Just 20 live in the wild, roaming in three wildlife refuges in eastern North Carolina.
During one recent checkup at a facility in a wildlife preserve 60 miles (100 km) south of Seattle, the sedated patient was a 9-year-old wolf known as 2077, the grandfather of six pups born earlier this year and the father of a wolf released into the wild.
"He is quite a patriarch," Wolf said.
The cinnamon-colored wolf, named 2077 by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service as the 2,077th wolf entered into the program, received a thorough cleaning and x-rays, and a diseased molar was removed. The vets also administered vaccines and drew blood to assess its overall health.
Meanwhile at an off-site breeding center, the most recent litter of pups yelped an off-key caterwaul into the forest.
The animals in managed care tend to live longer than free-ranging red wolves, in part because they have annual exams and dental hygiene.
The rare red wolves once ranged from New York to Texas, but by the late 1960s to 1970s a once thriving population was decimated. The wildlife service classified it as threatened with extinction in 1967.
As recently as the 1950s and 1960s, the U.S. wildlife service had an eradication program that killed wolves to protect people and other animals, only later understanding that apex predators were necessary to maintain a healthy ecosystem, said Natalie Davis, zoo curator and part of the Association of Zoos & Aquariums' program to save red wolves from extinction. It has introduced seven wolves into the wild in North Carolina this year.
Three of those released came from the Point Defiance Zoo program, including a pup born April 13.
(Reporting by Matt McKnight; Editing by Daniel Trotta and Diane Craft)
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