KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (WATE) — The rarest wild animal in the U.S. and most endangered wolf species in the world can be found in east Tennessee at Zoo Knoxville.

To raise awareness of the endangered creature, Zoo Knoxville is celebrating the first American Red Wolf week. The wolf was named extinct in the wild 40 years ago. Zoo Knoxville is a part of the wolf SAFE (Saving Animals from Extinction) program. They also work with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) in to reintroduce red wolves back into the wild.

“There are two actual species of wolves in the United States. One of them is the Gray Wolf, which is what we most associate the wolf name with, and we share those wolves with Mexico and also with Canada. The Red Wolf is endemic solely to the United States,” said Assistant Director of Animal Care, Kelly Cox. 

In the 1980s, 14 red wolves were put into a captive breeding facility. Since then, the program has grown to 49 facilities that hold and breed red wolves. The population is up to 240 in captivity, but Zoo Knoxville says there’s still a long way to go.

“They’ve had the misfortune of being termed the big bad wolf, that’s what they’re fighting against every day. Wolves are not big, they’re not bad. They are really elusive creatures, they do not care to interact with humans, that’s not their nature,” said Cox.

Zoo Knoxville currently houses 4 percent of the entire population of red wolves on the planet.

“It takes a lot of time, effort, and resources to make a recovery project like this a success, and Zoo Knoxville is so happy to be a part of that. We’re dedicated to the recovery of this species,” said Cox.  

USFWS estimates that there are between 19 and 21 wolves in the wild as of July 2022.