Book Review: The Secret World of Red Wolves: The Fight To Save North America’s Other Wolf

The Secret World of Red Wolves
Considered functionally extinct in 1980, the much-misunderstood red wolf (Canis rufus) has made a tenuous but promising comeback. In The Secret World of Red Wolves, T. Delene Beeland relates the fascinating saga of the red wolf. In researching her book, Beeland followed Fish and Wildlife biologists into the field, crawling through blackberry thorns and dense stands of myrtle while swatting at mosquitoes and gnats in the hot, humid environment of North Carolina’s Albemarle Peninsula. Her interest and firsthand involvement in the project makes The Secret World of Red Wolves the wonderful book that it is. Beeland’s presence is on every page, and in a pleasantly personal yet scientific manner. We come to know the red wolf through the eyes of an objective writer, one who has the ability to deliver the details in both a factual and enthralling way.

The red wolf, a smaller version of the better-known grey wolf, once inhabited much of the northeastern part of this country, including Louisiana, Texas, the Carolinas, Florida, and Alabama. Devastation of its environment, as well as the wolf-loathing mentality brought to this country by early settlers, caused a drastic reduction in their population. Once the red wolf population was depleted, coyotes moved in from the west, taking over the niche of their larger cousins. The two canids began to interbreed, and the resultant hybridization has become a serious threat to the integrity of the red wolf species.

Coyotes and red wolves are often mistaken for each other, and the hybrids are even more difficult to identify. Because of the morphological similarities between Canis rufus and coyotes, there remains much controversy over the genealogical origin of the red wolf. Is it a subspecies of the grey wolf or a species of its own? Is Canis rufus derived from its liaisons with Canis latrans? Or is the red wolf perhaps part of a lineage that led to the coyote of today?

The Secret World of Red Wolves pursues these questions in depth, as well as many others pertinent to Canis rufus. The text is divided into three sections: the current red wolf situation, the animal’s difficult past, and, finally, its guarded but hopeful future. By beginning with close-ups of today, including Beeland’s forage into the brush to locate litters of whimpering, month-old pups, readers become invested in both the four-legged and the two-legged characters, as well as in the red wolf recovery project. When we play catch up with the history of the story, we’re already aware of the trajectory the Fish and Wildlife Service must take to reverse the damage done to this fragile species. And when we read of the future, we understand what challenges will be faced, including the continued struggle to prevent hybridization, the loss of wolves due to hunting and trapping, the continued degradation of habitat due to climate change, as well as the ever-important goal of garnering public acceptance for the maligned red wolf.

Beeland lays it all out there, the struggles and successes of what continues to be an innovative and determined effort to save an endangered species, and we finish her book feeling something of an expert ourselves. Beeland’s hope in writing this thorough and relatable text is, in her words, “…that future scientists and citizens will see fit to conserve what we have left of Canis rufus as a living reminder of both what was and what still can be.”

The Secret World of Red Wolves holds much potential in helping Beeland’s vision come true. The work tells a tale most of us, even those who consider ourselves environmental enthusiasts, know little about. For the first time, we have at hand a comprehensive and up-to-date resource that serves to enlighten the world on the precarious status of the red wolf. And once enlightened, we can do our part to ensure the continued protection of this rare and unique species.

The Secret World of Red Wolves: The Fight to Save North America’s Other Wolf
By T. Delene Beeland
The University of North Carolina Press, June 2013

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