By Allison Sayer for Seward City News-
On January 16, I had the amazing opportunity to go behind the scenes at the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center with staff member Teal Goodsell.
As we passed by the wolf enclosure, a black and a white wolf came running up to the fence. “They love people,” Teal said. They were at a facility that lost its license. The Wildlife Center got them because they would be able to provide the wolves with human interaction. We stared at each other through the fence for awhile.
A young moose came trotting up to the fence on the other side of the path. The orphaned moose enclosed there attained some celebrity in Denali National Park last summer (see news article) before the Wildlife Center obtained them. We did not enter that enclosure because, Teal said, “That moose does not like me. He kicked me in the head!” Fair enough.
Now we were ready to enter some enclosures. We had a latex gloves to wear to protect the animals from germs. We changed gloves after each visit so we did not cross contaminate any enclosures.
The Wildlife Center was babysitting a pair of young caribou. We held out pellets to them as if we were at a petting zoo. The caribou quickly ate the pellets, looking sideways at us with giant eyes. Then they pretty much went about their business.
We visited Snickers the porcupine. This was definitely the highlight of the visit for me. A family with a dog and a child raised him in a trailer after finding him in their woodpile. It’s hard to imagine someone finding a baby porcupine and deciding it should be an indoor animal, but there are all types of people in this world. When the family suffered a misfortune, authorities confiscated Snickers and he came to the Wildlife Center.
We each held a peanut out to Snickers. He slowly sniffed the nut, then gently took it in his mouth. He held the nut in his front paws while chewing it out of the shell. Then, he tried to climb into Mereidi’s lap! We were not sure what to do. Here was an animal that clearly wanted to cuddle, but there was a serious problem. Without making any sudden moves, we scratched his little nose. It was amazing and adorable to watch this prickly animal enjoy being petted.
Next, we visited the adult moose. We did not go inside with them, but we each had a banana to feed to a moose. I naively started to peel it, but Teal told me it was not necessary. The moose ran up to the fence, and started licking the wires in anticipation of a banana treat. We each fed a moose a banana, peel and all. The fence between us and the moose started to feel mighty thin when the bull gently rapped his head against the wire. We quickly moved on to take a peek at the foxes.
Our last enclosure visit was the baby Sitka-black tailed deer. With the Alpenglow on the mountains behind us and tiny, plump super furry deer eating out of our hands, it was like some version of heaven. They were extremely dainty eating the alfalfa pellets, and they let us pet them even when we didn’t have any more food. I asked how these creatures from a milder region were doing with the cold temperatures. Teal said they seemed to be doing fine. She said when it got really cold they hunkered down in the hay a little bit more. I noticed they were very, very furry, maybe more so than their counterparts down in balmy Southeast.
I do want to reiterate, this is not the normal visitor experience. I don’t want anyone to go to the center expecting to handle the animals and leaving disappointed.
How are all of these animals so tame?
Staff bottle feed the baby animals that come into the center. The philosophy of the animal care practice is to deliberately make the animals as tame as possible. They will not be released into the wild, and the tamer they are, the easier it is for staff to care for them. For example, staff are working with the Sitka black tailed deer to halter train them. If they need to move the deer to another enclosure all they will have to do is slip on the halter. The animals need medical treatment, including shots, from time to time. Having an animal that doesn’t mind being handled makes that much easier and safer.
Is it “right” to keep wildlife in captivity?
Many people have differing opinions about keeping animals in captivity. Should orphaned baby animals be permitted to die, or should they be kept in what is essentially a zoo until they die? Many of them were orphaned as a result of illegal human activity, which made other humans feel our race had an obligation to them. Many baby animals that made it to the center were in close contact with humans right after they lost their mothers. People did not want to watch the baby animals die right in front of them. Also, the desperate babies were interfering with traffic and other human activities.
I think if there are people who want to take care of these animals, they should be able to go ahead and do it. I can understand the desire, as well, to “let nature run its course.” But, we should ask ourselves: Is nature really “running its course” in Alaska at all? The state inventories and heavily manipulates every economically important animal we have. I believe caring for the occasional orphaned animal is far less of an intervention than many of our other policies and practices. This is my own opinion, and not the opinion of the Seward City News or its sponsors!
The prevailing message of the visit for me was: Once humans interfere with an animal, it will be dependent on humans for the rest of its life.
Also, feeding baby deer and porcupines by hand is a really fun and special experience!