There is a Jurassic Park-size metal gate at the entrance to the Endangered Wolf Center.
"People think when they first come here that there are wolves running loose," said Regina Mossotti, director of Animal Care and Conservation.
It's a common misconception. The gates are meant to keep people out, not residents in. Residents include Mexican gray wolves, red wolves, maned wolves, swift foxes and African painted dogs. All are endangered; some more than others.
The Mexican grays, with the penetrating eyes and bad rep, are so scarce that at last count there are only 83 in the wild in Southwestern United States and Mexico.
The red wolves, slender and smaller cousins, number just 62 in the wild, and roam two refuges in North Carolina.
"When you are down to a handful, every individual is important," Regina explained as she stood by a tall chain-link fence around a vast wooded enclosure. It is one of many at the largest center in the world for wild canids.
Amadeus, a Mexican gray, watched from a distance on the other side, up a wooded hill. Somewhere in the forested enclosure was another male, Rocky, and his mate, Cedar.
"You see his tail sticking up?" Regina said of Amadeus as he moved a bit closer. "That means he's an alpha (highest ranking). All alphas raise their legs (when they urinate), even females; they can be alphas, too."
It's the kind of tidbit the staff likes to share with visitors.
Amadeus was looking mangy. No magnificent coat here -- just tufts of fur sprouting from his back and dangling from his chest.
"He's shedding the last of his winter coat," said Regina, eyeing the wolf as he came within 50 feet or so. "Doesn't look very photogenic, does he? When it's gone, he'll look like he got a buzz cut. In the winter, he looks 50 pounds heavier."
The discarded fur doesn't go to waste: Birds and squirrels make off with it for nests, doing their job at recycling.
Risk of extinction
In 1971, Marlin Perkins and his wife Carol turned their attention to one endangered animal in particular, the wolf. They joined with a group of other wildlife enthusiasts and experts to found the nonprofit Endangered Wolf Center to address the serious plight of wolves at risk of extinction.
Its mission is to foster carefully managed breeding, reintroduce wolves into the wild and educate the public about the wolves' place in an ecosystem where some, like the Mexican Grays, are top dog.
"It does no good to release (them) and have them shot. There has to be education," said Ashley Rearden, the center's education coordinator.
So, you can tour parts of the 60-acre center, which is on the grounds of the Washington University Tyson Research Center. There are a variety of tours and events (see information box and website) that let the public catch a glimpse of the wolves, learn about the center's efforts and even listen to them howl at night. Most of the tour is done on foot.
The Endangered Wolf Center annually hosts 60,000 visitors, 75 percent of them children. It's ranked fourth among the 2014 Top 20 Places to Take Kids in St. Louis by Kids Out and About St. Louis.
Not up close and personal
Visiting the center requires a different mindset: It's not like a zoo, though it is the only wolf facility in the world certified by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums.
When you visit, it won't be up close and personal. No petting. No hand-feeding. No running or dancing with wolves.
You may have to do some serious "Where's Waldo?" searching to see them among mature trees, shrubs and other natural vegetation in their enclosures.
"Wolves are naturally shy. Wherever we are, they move away," said Regina.
But, that doesn't mean they're anti-social.
"No, they are very social. They want to be with their family," she said of the Mexican grays. Pups are born blind and the pack cares for them until they are about 2, when they reach sexual maturity. Then, they seek out their own pack.
The smallest of the canids at the center -- and in North America -- are the swift foxes, named so by early American settlers who were taken by their speed.
"They get a lot of attention on tours," Regina said, lifting the lid of a wooden box in their enclosure. A half-dozen sleek foxes leapt out and scurried away. "Look! Boxes of foxes."
Once found throughout much of Canada and south through the plains states to Texas, the species was gone in Canada by 1978. By 1988, it survived in only about 10 percent of its territory in the United States. Thanks to a combined effort by the center and other facilities, they have made a comeback. Last year, the center sent a female swift fox to Canada to help with breeding and recovery efforts.
Staffers watch the animals closely, but, "We are very hands-off," said Regina.
"We don't hand feed. We don't want to associate humans with food. We want to nurture their natural instincts."
Road kill, such as deer, are brought in for the larger wolves, and hunting of small prey, such as rabbits and squirrels, occurs in the enclosures. A special chow mimics the nutritional value of food in the wild.
Keepers log behavior: Do they hunt? How do they behave as members of a pack? How do they behave around humans?
The answers help determine how ready an animal might be for release.
"We are at the ready at all times -- like they're going to go out tomorrow," Regina said.
But releases are few, with only one Mexican gray sent to Arizona in the last several years.
In partnership with the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, a release requires a "paperwork challenge" with the federal government, then there is the public relations work needed to help make people understand that putting these predators back in the wild is necessary for a balanced ecosystem.
"One chink in the armor and nothing works," said Regina, pointing to Yellowstone Park as an example. The killing and eventual extinction of gray wolves there led to an overabundance of elk that overgrazed, impacting erosion and decimating the range over decades.
The gray wolf reintroduction set the park back on a course to a balanced environment, Regina explained. "It's made all the difference."
For the kids
Educating children has become one of the foremost ways the center can insure a future where there is "a better ecosystem for all of us."
Inside the rustic education center, Karen Nichols had gathered her campers around a long table to talk about wolves. They were part of a four-day Summer Wolf Camp, which takes place five times from June to August every year and includes Hikes, lunch, nature talks and more.
Lucinda Coogan, 7, raised her hand when Karen asked who could identify a pelt she was holding. It was from a red wolf, Lucinda said.
"It's very soft, but different from this one," she added as she stroked the pelt, then one from a Mexican gray.
Was she afraid of wolves? Not anymore, she said.
"They're good for the world."
ENDANGERED WOLF CENTER
Where: 6750 Tyson Valley Road, Eureka, Mo.
Directions: Interstate 44 West to Exit 269/Beaumont-Antire Road. At stop sign, go straight, then look immediately to the right and you'll see a driveway and a large metal gate. Turn right. That is entrance to center. Pull up to intercom and follow directions.
Public tours: Guided PredaTours of the five species of canids that live at the center are at 9:30 a.m. and 1 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays and 1 p.m. Sundays. Private tours are offered 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. Wednesdays through Sundays. Check the website for evening Wolf Howls, tours for groups and private events.
Wolf Camps: Summer camp is filled, but space remains for the one-day Fall Wolf Camps on Oct. 11 and Oct. 18.
Cost: PredaTour, $14, adults; $12, children 4-14. Two-hour private tours $80 minimum for up to four people. For five people or more, $20 for adults and $18 for children ages 4-14. Groups of 10 or more get a 10 percent discount. Free admission to any current or past military member to PredaTours and Wolf Howls for 2014.
Reservations: Required for all public and private tours, camps and evening howls to 636-938-5900
Information: 636-938-5900 and endangeredwolfcenter.org