Katniss — the wolf — yawns in the sun

Katniss, a red wolf, yawns while sunning herself on the roof of her den Aug. 19, 2020, at the Endangered Wolf Center in Eureka. A proposed red wolf habitat was the focus of a Franklin County Planning and Zoning meeting.

The Saint Louis Zoo’s proposed habitat for a nearly extinct breed of wolf got the go-ahead from Franklin County’s planning and zoning commission last week.

The 6-1 vote in favor — with conditions that the facility be limited to 72 American red wolves and that breeding pairs have a tracking device in case they escape the 355-acre property at 4628 St. Louis Rock Road near Villa Ridge — came after a public hearing attended by a former host of “Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom” and an agriculture official who criticized the facility’s private donors.

The red wolf habitat will encompass 20 acres in the Saint Louis Zoo Sears Lehmann, Jr. Wildlife Reserve, land donated in 1993 by Peggy Lehmann. The facility will have 12 habitats, but because of high steel prices, only seven are expected to be built when the facility opens in late 2021 or early 2022. Each will contain a breeding pair of wolves that zoo officials hope will produce three to five pups a year.

“This space needs to be private, away from people, including environments similar to (wolves’) native range,” said Jo-Elle Mogerman, director of the planned Saint Louis Zoo WildCare Park north of St. Louis.

The zoo’s animal care staff will monitor the habitat remotely with cameras and visit daily to provide food and water and check the fencing. 

The habitat will use private donations from Kevin Beckmann, president of Trident Steel, and an anonymous donor. It also received a grant from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Recovery Challenge.

The zoo hopes to place pups into the wild in North Carolina, the only place red wolves are currently being released. Only about 30 red wolves now survive in the wild, with another 250 in captivity. At one time, there were around a million in the southeastern U.S..

Mogerman said the Endangered Wolf Center in Eureka approached the zoo about using its Franklin County property to protect red wolves. The center also recently opened two new wolf habitats to strengthen the population. 

“Just like the bald eagle when it was endangered, our role now is to help save this American species,” said Regina Mossotti, the center’s director of animal care and conservation. “The Saint Louis Zoo is one of the most respected zoos in the entire world. To be able to bring their expertise, their ability, the property that they have and their years of experience in saving endangered species is a critical component of our goal to save this awesome wolf.”

Mossotti pushed back on the idea that wolves are a threat to humans. “Wolves are actually scaredy cats,” she said. “They want nothing to do with people. They run away.” 

Stephanie Arne, who hosted a YouTube revival of “Wild Kingdom” and recently moved to the area, said the zoo has listened to concerns in putting together its plans. “These people know what they’re doing,” she said. “They care not just about the animals but the ecosystem. ... I understand what it’s like to be a ranching farmer, growing up that way. I just really hope we can take a step back and see the positive to it as well.”

Arne said she first heard about the Endangered Wolf Center from the daughter of the late Marlin Perkins, the original host of “Wild Kingdom,” who founded the wolf center after serving as director of the Saint Louis Zoo.

Though the zoo says there are no plans to release wolves in Missouri, representatives from several agriculture organizations spoke in opposition to the wolf habitat.

“We’ve got a little different perspective, and that is what’s going to happen after the breeding thing,” said Robert Buxton, president of the Franklin County Cattlemen’s Association. “Presently, livestock producers face multiple challenges, we have coyotes, foxes, mountain lions and bears in the area. The concern would be introducing another species.”

Dennis Hartmann, the only commissioner to vote against the permit for the wolf habitat, was among those who raised concerns about a 2017 incident in which four-week-old red wolf pups escaped from their enclosure at the North Carolina Museum of Life and Science and were quickly captured.

Terry Schwoeppe, of Labadie, a member of the Missouri Soybean Association board, suggested the wolves could be a danger to campers.

“All of a sudden, with the reintroduction of the black bear, mountain lions, the vultures being protected, there is quite a bit of concern on the conservation ground or private campsites,” he said. “Are we really going to be safe? The animals are going to be more acclimated to people the more population we have.”

Neighbor Michelle Bobo told the board the wolf habitat would be better for the area than a new subdivision, saying, “I am excited the Saint Louis Zoo is utilizing the property there in Villa Ridge to care for endangered species.”