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Behind the myth of wolves lives a shy, rare N.C. canine

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Though most people have never seen a wolf, the creatures evoke an unusual fascination. And “The Secret World of Red Wolves” provides an abundance of wolfish lore.

But the book does much more. It dives into this promised “secret world” and carries us along, offering revelations on every page about the wolves’ latest home in the Albemarle Peninsula of Eastern North Carolina, their history, biology and interactions with other species – especially humans.

By the time the last page turns, the reader will have been taught and entertained in equal measure, and it will be a rare person who doesn’t feel more empathy for all those involved with the perilous life of this rare creature.

The author, science writer T. DeLene Beeland of Asheville, is a longtime contributor to SciTech and has told some of the story of Canis rufus on these pages. Her fine writing shines through the book, lending clarity to complex questions such as how the wolf evolved (which still remains subject to debate), and charm to stories of the region and the people who have worked so hard to drag the wolf from the jaws of extinction.

The landscape itself merits descriptive flair; as she approaches the Red Wolf Recovery Program’s offices on Roanoke Island, she writes, “In the distance, pine trees taper out into the marsh at the horizon line until their trunks are visible singly, like a row of slim men marching to sea.” She revisits the state of the marshes later, showing how saltwater intrusion is threatening the secret world where the wolves have been established.

These wolves, generally larger than coyotes but smaller than gray wolves, don’t at all match the mythical image of a fearsome predator bringing down elk or bison. The red wolf, remarkably shy, would much rather run than encounter a human.

They generally dine on small prey such as muskrats, rabbits and nutria, which has won the appreciation of some farmers in the North Carolina recovery area.

Regardless, each year finds wolves dying of gunshot wounds, though shooting them is illegal. And though the recovery program works to prevent interbreeding with coyotes, it still sometimes occurs, threatening the integrity of Canis rufus.

In the end, however, the red wolf may be most threatened not by actions, but by inactions. The federal program that undergirds them is costly; Beeland writes that it likely will go to the state of North Carolina, though the state has shown little interest in continuing it. And climate change constantly lifts the sea toward the home of the red wolves.

Meanwhile, the wolves have their puppies each spring, pursue their small prey, flee their hunters, and sing their wolfish songs into the night.

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