AK: Wildlife

Despite all the snow piled up around the state, spring is just around the corner.  To prove it, Shaguyik and Taqouka, two Kodiak grizzly cubs, crept out of their log dens at Portage’s Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center this week to enjoy some welcome sunshine.  The two little bears, both orphans, have been on view at the Center, as have many other rescued animals,  much to the delight of area schoolchildren.

It’s clear for once in Portage.  Fluffy bits of cloud barely touch the mountains around the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center, although the wind is biting.  But kids from Anchorage’s Polaris Elementary don’t mind much.  They are here to see the animals.  Kindergartener Teagun says she’s sad the eagle fell down. She’s referring to Adonis, a rescued bald eagle who was found shot.  Adonis lost one wing and lives out his life in the Center’s outdoor bird enclosure.  You can hear him calling to

an unfettered juvenile bald eagle gliding by.  The elk resting in their pasture below barely look up, while Wood Bison in an adjoining enclosure continue munching hay. But the bear cubs are the star attractions on this day. Animal care intern Erin Leighton introduces them:

“Taquoka is the dark male  and Shaguyik is the blonde female inside the little cabin.  They are two years old.”

Leighton says the two will be sent to a bear park in Sweden in June. Shaguyik shyly follows Taquoka out of the cabin, and the two fuzzy wuzzy cubs chew on spruce branches and roll in the snow. They don’t look threatening at all, but Leighton says they will grow to be around a thousand pounds each.  “So they are the largest subspecies of brown bear in the world.”

She says it is not surprising that they are up on a sunny day. In their semi – hibernating state, the bears must be careful about what they eat.

“This time of year, if we give them anything, it has to be pure protein, it’s got to be straight meat, red meat or maybe a little bit of fruit, because their bodies can’t digest a whole lot of food, so it’s got to be pure protein if we give them a snack. “

The bear cubs, like many of the animals at the Center, are orphans or were injured and sent there to recover

“Shaguyik was found just wandering around when she should have been hibernating, and Taquoka, his mother was killed wandering into a village.”

Some of the Center’s foundlings – like Snickers the porcupine – are star performers.  Snickers routinely travels in a dog kennel to school gyms full of fourth graders, like he did a week or so ago.

Center Intern Jonathan Spear, who hosts the traveling exhibits, is an old hand at showing Snickers at Anchorage schools.   He answers kids questions, which range from ‘are his quills poison?’ to ‘is he [Snickers] on medication?’   Afterwards, children make PlayDoh porcupines, using spaghetti for quills.

Sometimes the schools come to him.  On this brilliant but chilly and breezy day in Portage,  Polaris elementary school teacher Mike McGhee has brought his kindergarten and first grade classes to a big outdoor show and tell.

“We’ve been studying Alaska animals in our classes this winter and we thought we’d come down and see some animals up close.  The guide did a great job telling us about some animal facts we weren’t aware of.  The highlights were the moose and watching the lynx jump up and down and watching the eagle eat in the snow.”

The lynx is one of three kittens found abandoned by their mother after a wildfire.

“And, of course, the bear cubs’, McGhee continues. “We saw them come out of their den and they were only about four feet away from us.”

McGhee’s students have brought their lunches and wolfed them down, no pun intended, after their tour.   But feeding the animals is a full time job.  Center staff use a fork lift to carry bales of hay to the Wood Bison.  Intern Jonathan Spear  says others are hand fed.

“The bison and the elk and the moose, our maintenance guys dump in hay or grain.  Erin and I are responsible for feeding the smaller animals, The coyote we through some moose or chicken  meat over the fence when he comes out.  We do it away from the bears so they don’t come and scare him away from his food.   We feed fish, hooligan or salmon to our bald eagle.”

Spear says the largest animals, the elk and caribou, are owned outright by the Center, and through an agreement with the state Department of Fish and Game, many of the rehabilitated injured animals are released back into the wild.

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