Leverage your leopard: the biz behind Alaska’s only zoo

If you’ve ever wanted to feed a snow leopard, a moose, or a pack of wolves, this year you’ve got a chance. Albeit, for a tidy sum.

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It’s part of a package deal at the Alaska Zoo–one piece in a funding strategy particular to non-profits in the high north: Finding ways to bring in extra cash during the long, lean winter months ahead of tourist season.

On a recent Monday afternoon, zookeeper Timothy Lescher split a side of caribou ribs with a hand-saw.

“I think we got probably nine pieces here, which is a good number.”

He stuffs assorted chunks of carcass into a black trash-bag, and gets ready to toss piece after piece over the fence to a hungry pack of wolves.

“Looks delicious, doesn’t it?” Lescher asked as the wolves whined nearby.

“Is that moose scapula?” I asked.

“Yes,” he replied. “The wolves, they like everything.”

The five loping lupines are just a few in the long list of Lescher’s animal wards: Brown bears, the snow leopard, dall sheep, trumpeter swans, among others.

“I also take care of the petting zoo animals,” he added.

It’s like parenting a barn full of kids, even though some are on opposing sides of the food-chain. Lescher has made peace with the gentle contradiction that is zoo-keeping wild animals. The wolf pack is kept alive on a diet made up partially of donated meat scraps that come–quite feasibly–from cousins of a nearby adolescent moose named Uncle Fudge, that Lescher raised from the bottle.

Zookeeper Timothy Lescher feeds a frozen banana to Uncle Fudge, a one-year-old moose he's helped raise. Photo: Zachariah Hughes, APM.
Zookeeper Timothy Lescher feeds a frozen banana to Uncle Fudge, a one-year-old moose he’s helped raise. Photo: Zachariah Hughes, APM.

When we stop at Uncle Fudge’s pen he lunges excitedly at his keeper’s palm for pieces of frozen banana.

Likewise, Lescher is unfazed by the pacing and growls that greet us when we step into the chilly lair of a leopard.

“You just wanna make sure you stay against this wall, because he will jump up on this fence,” Lescher tells me.

“Ok,” I heed.

Lescher is giving me a behind-the-scenes tour of the zoo as part of a special program called “Keeper for a Day.” For $200 a person you shadow the zookeepers for five hours, feeding fruit to shaggy Bactrian Camels, watching the wolves get walked on chain-leashes, or watching Nakai the snow leopard nibble lunch from Lescher’s finger-tips.

In the wild, Nakai would be stalking blue sheep, ibexes, or Tibetan yaks in the Himalayan mountains. Today he’s getting high-grade hamburger.

“That’s all bud,” Lescher tells the elongated feline, who gives a very relatable growl as the meat runs out.

Nakai has the coloring and musculature of a very buff house-cat blown up to the size of a coffee-table. Plus a three-foot long tail for balancing on snowy boulders. His globular eyes are captivating, and when the food is gone his head bobs up and down tracking my movements in a flattering but unsettling way.

“Keep your back against the wall, is what I tell people, and you’ll be fine,” Lescher adds.

Nakai is the only snow leopard at the zoo. Lescher says they hope to get him a companion, but the wait-list for endangered snow leopards makes that unlikely within the next year. Photo: Zachariah Hughes.
Nakai is the only snow leopard at the zoo. Lescher says they hope to get him a companion, but the wait-list for endangered snow leopards makes that unlikely within the next year. Photo: Zachariah Hughes.

For animal super-fans this is the sweet nectar of first-hand experience the Alaska Zoo is leveraging to help pay its bills.

“The zoo is actually comprised of like six different businesses,” said Jill Myer, the zoo’s development director.

At the standing desk in her office, overlooking the alpaca pen, she ran through line after line of the organization’s expenses.

“$125,000 dollars a year–I mean, that’s just to basically care for the animals,” Myer said. It covers things like toys, husbandry, and food.

“That doesn’t seem as huge as I thought,” I replied.

“It doesn’t, but then you need to continue on: A lot of the care of the animals comes into staff.”

It turns out, the most expensive zoo creatures are the keepers. The biggest expense in the budget is salaries and benefits for employees. It costs more to cover human medical insurance than buy all the animal food.

There are other challenges that make funding a sub-arctic zoo a little–let’s say, unique. Most of last fiscal year’s $2,936,700 in last year’s revenues came from admissions during the summer, when tour buses and cruise ships unleash a steady torrent of visitors. The zoo even extends its hours.

“It’s Alaska, and there’s light, and you can come to the zoo in the middle of the night and there’s animals still up and roaming around,” Myer excitedly explained.

Angelica Evans feeds fruit to a male Bactrian camel. Photo: Zachariah Hughes, APM.
Angelica Evans feeds fruit to a male Bactrian camel. Photo: Zachariah Hughes, APM.

Unfortunately, because the zoo specializes in cold-weather creatures, they aren’t exactly in their element during tourist season. The tigers get sluggish, and if the mercury climbs too high the bears demand special accommodations.

“When it gets over 70 degrees we start trucking in ice, and so they just lay in the ice and they’re so thankful.”

Winter is when the most of the mega-fauna are a bit more out and about. And they aren’t the only ones. With the bears hibernating, the hours reduced, and fewer visitors wandering around, the keepers have extra time too.

The Keeper for A Day program is a way for the zoo to leverage its biggest assets–the allure of the animals and the expertise of the keepers–to make extra money when the grounds are under utilized. They also rent the zoo out for weddings and host special programs. None of these revenue streams take in that much–Keeper For Day brought in just $15,500 last year. But that buys a snow leopard a lot of hamburger meat.

Offering programs that get more enthusiastic patrons to spend on unique experiences isn’t unique to the zoo. It’s part of a strategy non-profits and cultural institutions across the state use to cultivate buy-in. Keeper for a Day is a refined extension of the Alaska Sealife Center’s annual gala or museum events increasingly aimed at a younger, hipper set.

Ann Hale directs development at the Anchorage Museum, and has more than two decades of experience funding non-profits in Alaska. The fundraising profile exists at peer institutions in the Lower-48, but amplified in Alaska.

“Because the economy here is reliant on summer tourism,” Hale said sitting in her office, overlooking no animals. “It may be more unique for us than it is in other states or other communities.”

Like the zoo, the Anchorage Museum collects the majority of its admissions revenue during the three-and-a-half month summer window. Alaska non-profits have to plan accordingly for the non-tourist season, according to Hale.

Lescher, the zookeeper, is less concerned with the finances than a longer-term set of goals when it comes to programs like Keeper for a Day.

“I see as many adults as I do kids. Sometimes they’re aspiring zookeepers, sometimes they’re just people that have an intense interest in wildlife or in animals in general.”

He thinks that if a zoo can get people invested in a relationship with Nakai the leopard or Uncle Fudge the moose, that serves their larger mission of animal conservation.