Red Wolf

Canis rufus

The Most Endangered Wolf

Intermediate in size between the gray wolf (Canis lupus) and the coyote (Canis latrans), red wolves look something like large coyotes.


Historical – Red wolves originally occupied eastern North America, from the Gulf Coast into southern Ontario, Canada. Current – Extinct in the wild in 1980, Red wolves are now in a captive breeding-and-release program. The primary wild release area is eastern North Carolina, on the peninsula between the Albermarle and Pamilico Sounds. Low human density, wetland soil type and distance from roads seem to be the most important habitat features.


  • Wild – Rabbits, squirrels, fawns, birds and eggs, plus insects and reptiles as available.
  • Zoo – Canine Maintenance, with frozen feline; fasted weekly; bone or muscle meat weekly.


Red wolves are cinnamon or tawny, with black-tipped guard hairs. The ears are usually red and the tail-tip black. The summer coat is more reddish than the dense winter coat. In all seasons, the “eyebrows” and fur along the lips is cream.


Red wolves seldom form large packs and mostly hunt smaller mammals like raccoons, rabbits, and deer. Red Wolves seldom howl, but when they do it is more reminiscent of coyote chortling. The young especially, do a lot of singing and chortling. Red Wolves are mostly nocturnal, but may be more active during the day in the winter.


Red Wolves have long thin legs, typical of running hunters. Hearing and vision are keen, necessary for being nocturnal predators, and the sense of smell is excellent.

There is a definite change in coat, summer being short and coarse, almost slick-coated, and winter being double and soft.

Breeding & Growth

Red Wolves mate for life. Gestation is about 60 days. Usually 4 altricial pups are born, the eyes opening after about 2 weeks. They begin joining the hunt at about 5 months, just after their deciduous canines drop out and the permanent ones begin to come in. Pups will stay with the pack for 1 to 3 years, helping to raise their younger siblings.

Animal Facts

  • Lifespan 6-7 years in the wild and up to 15 years in captivity
  • Length 4.5-5.5 feet long (including the tail)
  • Height About 26 inches at the shoulders
  • Weight 50-80 pounds
  • Status Critically Endangered


The American red wolf is the most endangered wolf on the planet. Historically common throughout the Eastern and South Central United States, these wolves have been hunted to near extinction in the wild. Their numbers were decimated by the early 20th century due to intensive human driven predator control programs and alteration of habitat. Coyotes, who can often be mistaken for red wolves due to their striking resemblance, have encroached into the wolves territories due to the drastically low numbers.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) began their recovery efforts by trapping wild wolves to establish a captive breeding program with the intention of reintroducing the species to the wild. Point Defiance Zoo and Aquarium was the first zoo to join efforts with the service, and a breeding program was started with 14 wolves. The Association of Zoos & Aquariums (AZA) developed a Red Wolf Species Survival Plan (SSP) program in 1984 with approximately 63 wolves in the captive population. The SSP was actively growing the population through the coordinated efforts of the SSP partner facilities, making reintroduction efforts possible.

However, after growing to an estimated 130 wolves in the wild, in 2011, the population has declined dramatically, due to human caused mortality. The wild population is estimated at only 15 individuals as of 2020. This population only exists on the eastern coast of North Carolina on Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge.

Fresno Chaffee Zoo has participated in the Red Wolf SSP, or Species Survival Plan, for over 30 years, with several successful litters. We are one of over 40 partnering institutions dedicated to increasing the population under human managed care.

View Resilience: Story of the American Red Wolf, sponsored in part by the Fresno Chaffee Zoo, to learn more!

Did You Know?

Red Wolves live in packs of 5 to 8 individuals and consist of an adult breeding pair and their young of different ages.