ST. LOUIS (AP) -- They looked just like five well-behaved puppies, barely squirming, when a veterinarian gave them their eight-week inoculations. In reality, experts believe the tiny animals offer hope for a nearly extinct breed of wolf.
The Mexican gray wolf pups -- four light gray males and one female -- had a coming-out party of sorts Thursday. Members of the media were given a first glimpse of the pups born May 2 at the Endangered Wolf Center in suburban St. Louis.
Volunteer vet Randy Junge, director of animal health at the St. Louis Zoo, vaccinated the pups and injected tracking microchips under their skin. The pups took it in stride with hardly a yelp or a fidget.
"They're all very healthy," Junge said. "No surprises."
That's good news for advocates of the Mexican gray, a wolf species indigenous to an area that includes Mexico, Arizona and New Mexico. The expansion of the American West has not been kind to the once thriving breed known by some as "El Lobos."
Officials at the Endangered Wolf Center say the Mexican grays were hunted, trapped and poisoned for more than a century by ranchers and others. It was designated an endangered species in 1976, and was considered extinct in the wild until reintroduction into Arizona and New Mexico in 1998.
Today, 42 Mexican grays live outside of captivity. That's why advocates are so excited about the new pups, who will be introduced into the wild when they are old enough, in 18 months to three years.
"It may surprise some that five newly born wolf pups can make such a dramatic impact on the recovery of a threatened ecosystem in the western United States," said Mac Sebald, executive director of the center. "But when you start with essentially zero in the wild, these five lives make an immeasurable difference."
The pups were born to two residents of the center, Perkins and Abby. Thursday marked the first time the pups were separated from their parents, curator Jackie Fallon said. The pups seemed OK with the separation -- and the intrusion of people and cameras -- but Perkins and Abby seemed nervous, howling occasionally.
The center, situated on 63 isolated acres in southwest St. Louis County, plays a pivotal role in efforts to replenish the Mexican gray wolf population. Officials say 162 Mexican grays have been born there. Officials say at least one alpha member of every existing pack in the wild can trace its ancestry to the center.
All told, more than 40 wolves of four different species are currently at the center, which was founded in 1971 by zoologist Marlin Perkins, a St. Louis native best known as the host of TV's "Mutual of Omaha Wild Kingdom." Perkins died in 1986. His daughter, Marguerite Perkins Garrick, is on the center's board of directors.
(Copyright 2010 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)