A Trip to the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center

Photo by Doug Lindstrand.
Photo by Doug Lindstrand.

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Today we’re visiting the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center. When driving along Turnagain Arm, you might miss the modest sign for the AWCC near Portage Creek. But if you do manage to find your way into the wildlife center, you’ll find some interesting animals with equally fascinating stories.

“Everybody comes in with a special or unique reason. The end goal with as many of them as possible is reintroducing them back to the wild. It’s one of the big areas we differ from the zoo,” Scott Michaelis says.

Michaelis is the Director of Marketing and Sales for the AWCC. He says most of the animals will find their way back to the wild at some point. But not all of them.

“With some of them due to the conditions they’ve come into captivity to us, reintroduction will never be a possibility. Like brown bears for instance, they gain such a high comfort level in captivity with humans that it’s actually been made illegal to reintroduce bears,” Michaelis says.

A lynx, hanging out near the edge of the enclosure.
A lynx, hanging out near the edge of the enclosure.

And that’s fine by the AWCC. After all, two of their brown bears are national celebrities. Their mother was killed in a defense of property shooting.

“The Department of Fish and Game went in and didn’t know that the mother had cubs. And shortly after they found two cubs up in a neighbor’s tree,” Michaelis says.

So one Fish and Game investigator, who happened to be a former gymnast, scaled the tree and carried the bears down to safety. The story went national, and ended up getting the cubs a pair of sponsors.

“They said whatever we have to do to sponsor these bears and bring them into captivity and not put them down we’ll do. And our two adult brown bears, Joe Boxer and Patrón are named after their respective sponsors,” Michaelis says.

The AWCC operates a tour bus that offers a short drive, but some vast viewing.

“It surprises people; a lot of them think we’re just that roadside ranch. But once you actually make the turn in you get into the landscape, and it’s very expansive,” Michaelis says.

This eagle only has one wing.
This eagle only has one wing.

The center spans more than 200 acres, and is home to some interesting creatures. There’s an eagle with an amputated wing, several black-tailed deer, and more than 200 wood bison.

“We’re currently the only facility in the United States that has any wood bison. The wood bison are the only animal to be taken off the extinction list, so it’s a very unique undertaking,” Michaelis says.

The center also owns some one-of-a-kind real estate.

“This is where the Kenai Peninsula meets the mainland of Alaska; it’s where Turnagain Arm comes inland. We technically own the last five feet of Turnagain Arm property. And we’ll see everything from hooligan and salmon runs to wild beluga whales down here during high tide,” Michaelis says.

And Michaelis touts that as one of the center’s biggest selling points. He says on a daily basis, you can see the captive wildlife interacting with the actual wildlife. Eagles perch the trees, fish swim under the boardwalk and bears will occasionally roam on to the grounds to check out Patrón and Joe Boxer. Michaelis says if that’s not enough to draw you in, the final stop on the tour just might do it. The last enclosure holds a pair of lynx, and they are the fan favorite; probably because they behave more like house cats than wild animals.

“They absolutely love that window in the top of their enclosure. They’ll sun bathe up there in the early morning because it gets good sunlight. Some of the wild birds that are in the area, they’ll keep very close tabs on. Very much like a house cat, they’re very interested in the birds,” Michaelis says.