A Mexican gray wolf — an endangered species — makes some noise at the Wolf Conservation Center in South Salem, New York. (Rebecca Bose/Wolf Conservation Center)

Aroooooo! Crystal the gray wolf throws her head back and howls. In the wild, the electrifying sound might carry for miles. At home in her wooded hillside enclosure at the Smithsonian’s National Zoo, she’s probably calling to her pack mate, Coby, or singing along with a wailing siren from an ambulance speeding past on Connecticut Avenue. Crystal howls with a high pitch. Coby joins in with her low voice. These two 10-year-old wolves make up the pack that live within the zoo’s American Trail exhibit.

“Crystal and Coby show people that wolves are real, not just something in a picture or a show on TV,” says zoo animal keeper Sara Allison. “When you have a connection with a real animal, you’re more likely to want to protect it.”

The Wolf Conservation Center in South Salem, New York, works to increase the population of the Mexican gray wolf. (Rebecca Bose/Wolf Conservation Center)
An endangered species

Have you ever wondered about the meaning of the words “endangered” or “conservation”? “Endangered” means at serious risk of extinction. “Conservation” means working to save something precious, such as water or endangered wildlife.

For hundreds of thousands of years, wolves lived all over the world, from tundra to mountain to desert. But about 50 years ago, wolves nearly disappeared in the United States. They had been trapped, poisoned and shot to death because many people thought of them as pests and competition for such food animals as elk and deer.

Eventually, people realized that killing off wildlife harms our shared environment. In 1973, a law called the Endangered Species Act was enacted to protect animals and plants in danger of extinction. If not for this law, there would probably be no wild wolves (or other species such as grizzly bears and black-footed ferrets) left in the United States.

A wolf pup at the Wolf Conservation Center in South Salem, New York. (Wolf Conservation Center)
Return of the wolves

Thanks to conservation efforts and the resilience of the gray wolves themselves, populations have rebounded. In the United States, gray wolves can be found living in remote areas of Minnesota, Wisconsin, Oregon, Michigan, Idaho, Montana and Washington state.

In 2012, gray wolves in the Northern Rocky Mountains were “delisted,” or removed from the list of endangered animals. But the southernmost subspecies of the gray wolf — the Mexican gray — remains very much endangered.

“In the late 1960s there were only seven Mexican gray wolves left on the planet,” says wolf conservationist Maggie Howell. She’s the director of the Wolf Conservation Center (WCC) in South Salem, New York. (It’s a nice coincidence that her name is pronounced “howl.”) She says that today there are approximately 83 Mexican gray wolves in the wild in Arizona, New Mexico and northern Mexico.

Crystal, a gray wolf at the National Zoo, is a cousin to the endangered Mexican gray wolves. (Linda Davidson/The Washington Post)

Conservation groups such as the WCC are working with the U.S. government to help further expand the population of Mexican gray wolves. One member of the species, a wolf labeled M1141, was born in captivity at the WCC on Earth Day 2008 and will be released in northern Mexico any day now. “This gorgeous New Yorker will be a wild Mexican gray wolf,” Howell says. “He’ll face challenges, but we’re hopeful that he and his mate will soon have a litter of wild-born pups.”

As for Crystal and Coby, their life in captivity is more metropolitan than their wild cousins. Instead of hunting deer and moose, they nibble on kibble and a special wolf meatloaf served by caretakers. They also enjoy an occasional belly rub from their keepers.

No matter what their lifestyle, Howell says, “all of these wolves are an important piece of Mother Nature’s puzzle.”

Jazynka is the author of “National Geographic Kids Mission: Wolf Rescue,” the second in a series of books on how kids can help endangered species.

Endangered species need your help

In the United States, more than 1,200 animal and plant species are listed as “endangered” or “threatened,” which means close to being endangered. The International Union for Conservation of Nature (www.iucn.org) tracks thousands of threatened or endangered animal and plant species around the world.

Endangered Species Day, which was May 16, encourages people — especially kids — to get involved in saving animals. “Nobody’s voices are more important than kids’ voices when it comes to endangered species,” says Leda Huta, who leads the Endangered Species Coalition in Washington. If kids raise awareness of the animals’ situation, bald eagles will continue to soar overhead and wolves will keep howling in the wild.

Here’s what you can do:

●Take a trip to the National Zoo to meet such endangered species as the Asian elephant, the Shenandoah salamander, the western lowland gorilla and the Sumatran tiger. (The zoo has two Sumatran cubs, Bandar and Sukacita, pictured above.)

●Read about endangered species, such as wolves, and how you can help save them.

●Share what you know about wolves with everyone you know! You can follow the story of the wolf labeled M1141 at www.nywolf.org or express your opinion about stronger wolf protections at www.standforwolves.org. (Always ask a parent before going online.)

●Work with your family or a school group to plant a garden for monarch butterflies or install a bat box to help save endangered species.

Find these animals at the zoo
Bandar and Sukacita are Sumatran tiger cubs born last year at the Smithsonian’s National Zoo. They belong to one of the endangered species that can be seen at the zoo. (Linda Davidson/The Washington Post)

The next time you visit the National Zoo, see how many of these endangered animals you can spot.

Giant panda

Red panda


Clouded leopard

Fishing cat

Black-footed ferret


Andean bear

Sloth bear

Asian small-clawed otter

Przewalski’s horse

Scimitar-horned oryx

Dama gazelle


Micronesian kingfisher

White-naped crane

Cuban crocodile

Aldabra tortoise

Elkhorn coral

Grevy’s zebra

Panamanian golden frog