South American canine a wolf in name only
Who’s afraid of the Big Bad Wolf? Certainly not I (as the song goes).
But through history, the word “wolf” has invoked fear and terror, often as a result of the reputation spread by childhood fairy tales such as the Grimm Brothers’ “Little Red Riding Hood.” However, attacks on humans by big carnivores are actually an insignificant percentage of deaths in the natural environment. In fact, more deaths can be attributed to mosquitoes or malaria.
Nevertheless, fear and mythology fuel the concept of this fierce reputation which, in turn, is a contributing factor leading to the decline in many wolf populations. While some types of wolves may be more likely to be involved in attacks than others, such incidents are usually a sign of an unbalanced environment, such as the loss of habitat and competition for resources with humans and other domestic animals.
Maned wolves, for example, are vilified as threats by many farmers and ranchers in South America. Despite its name, the maned wolf is actually more closely related to the fox. But whether its reputation suffers more from being lumped in with wolves or foxes, maned wolves actually play a positive role in the agricultural environment. They work as farmers’ allies in controlling the rodent and snake populations.
These large canids also play an important role in sowing fruit. As the wolf eats the entire fruit, its feces are full of seeds and the fruit is widely sown throughout the wolves’ wide home territory.
Its reputation is not the only threat to the natural population of maned wolves. Like so many other species, the encroachment of human activity on wolves’ territories is having a devastating effect. They compete for limited resources, which creates scarcity and conflict. Traffic is also a major threat to wolves — more than half of all pups are killed on the road, as well as many adult wolves. The wild maned wolf species is also susceptible to diseases carried by domestic canines. Folklore has it that parts of maned wolves have magical or medicinal powers, and so the animals also are hunted.
But all is not bleak. Education efforts by groups such as Brazil’s Sou Amigo do Lobo (Friend of the Wolf) are helping to dispel myths and teach younger generations the importance of the species in the ecosystem.
The Pueblo Zoo features two maned wolves on the west end of the zoo. On some days, visitors to the city’s nearby dog park report the smell of skunk in the area. This is actually the musky smell of the maned wolves.
In 2013, the conservation team of Rogerio Cunha de Paula and Adriano Gambarini visited the Pueblo Zoo to capture images and observe three newly born pups for their book “Stories of a Gold Wolf,” which is now sold in the zoo gift shop.
References: “Stories of A Golden Wolf,” Rogerio Cunha de Paula and Adriano Gambarini; arkive.org