AK: How do you grow a zoo in Anchorage?

A brown bear stretching out at the Alaska Zoo, June 20, 2017 (Photo: Zachariah Hughes, Alaska Public Media)

The Alaska Zoo has dramatically transformed over the last five decades. Its origins are with an Anchorage grocer who won a baby elephant in a contest sponsored by a paper company. The two-year-old elephant, Annabelle, was kept in a heated stall at a horse ranch in South Anchorage, and over the years a zoo grew up around her.

That process of expanding a collection of rare animals isn’t easy. None the less, there have been some acquisitions lately. The process of integrating new wildlife into the facility combines non-profit budgeting with the whims of mother nature.

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On a recent weekday afternoon under a mild drizzle, a mother musk ox named Maya chomped on branches, while her tiny new daughter nibbled at a pile of Fireweed tossed in their pen.

“This one was born here, and her name is Sarah Elizabeth,” Patrick Lampi, the zoo’s executive director, said.

Sarah Elizabeth, a month-and-a-half old musk ox at the Alaska Zoo, June 20, 2017 (Photo: Zachariah Hughes, Alaska Public Media)

The long-legged musk ox toddler was born right around Mother’s Day last month. And Lampi said that of all the ways his zoo acquires new animals, births like this are the rarest.

“We have a pretty limited breeding program here,” Lampi said. But he added that when it comes to musk oxen “we know there is a need for them.”

What Lampi means is that a lot of zoos around the world want one of these hearty prehistoric goats. But they’re hard to come by. And though zoos can’t sell animals to one another, there is a system in place that facilitates global exchange. The last musk ox born to Maya was sent down to the Port Defiance Zoo in Tacoma.

But the majority of new animals that arrive at the Alaska Zoo are wildlife rescues. That includes a different baby musk ox living just a few dozen feet away. He was orphaned from a herd in Nome, where the males kept chasing him off.

“It wouldn’t have survived more than a couple days out there,” Lampi said. He’s tiny, and so young he hasn’t even been given a name yet.

“I think he’s pushing a month now. Not too much bigger than a newborn,” Lampi said. As the knee-high ball of fuzz trundles silently over to the fence where we’re standing I am reminded that petting baby animals at the zoo, even when they look very soft, is not allowed.

When this musk ox gets bigger and healthier he’ll be sent up to live at the university in Fairbanks. And that’s a lot of what the zoo does with injured and orphaned animals: basically provide foster care until they can be placed in a permanent home. In Alaska, there are some species this happens with so often that the zoo has no need to try breeding them.

A watchful coyote at the Alaska Zoo, June 20, 2017 (Photo: Zachariah Hughes, Alaska Public Media)

“Like brown bears, or black bears, or moose calves,” Lampi rattled off. “There’s usually so many orphans that there’s not really need for us to be breeding those, it’s better to try to finding homes for the orphans that are out there.”

We headed to the other side of the grounds to see one such luckless little cub, but en route we get side-tracked by a pack of wolves.

“They’re all from one litter,” Lampi said as four of the five siblings studied us from the other side of their enclosure.

The pack is from an area outside McGrath where the state has allowed a lot of predator control, the controversial practice of opening wolves and bears to expanded hunting in an effort to boost moose and caribou populations. According to Lampi, the zoo approached the state and offered to take in a litter, which would accomplish the same goal of relieving pressure on area ungulates. The state agreed. That was 11 years ago, and the pack is now a fixture at the zoo.

In front of a group of kids, Lampi coaxed the wolves from mild whimpers into a full-blown chorus of hows.

“Come on, you guys can do better than that,” Lampi chided, like some kind of choir director.

The pack belted out a yowling harmony that kept getting louder and louder, to the delight of everyone around.

Even though Lampi’s worked at the zoo for 31 years, he still stops to listen every time the wolves sing.

A black bear examining its hammock at the Alaska Zoo, June 20, 2017 (Photo: Zachariah Hughes, Alaska Public Media)

We headed down a side-trail to peak at a tiny little black bear orphaned in Valdez this winter. Eventually it’ll head to the San Diego Zoo. Which is lucky, because Lampi and his staff can only take in animals when they know they can find them a permanent place.

“If there’s no way we can take care of them for the rest of their lives, and we don’t have a home for them to go to, then they just let nature take its course out in the wild,” Lampi said.

Soon after, we walk by a trio of playful, chortling otters, pass a stern-eyed owl and some damp yaks, then wind up in front of two snow leopards. These animals are extremely rare. The female, Malala, came from a zoo in New York this May. The couple is napping on separate boulders partitioned by a thin chain-link fence.

“They’re still checking each other out,” Lampi admitted. Snow leopards live solitary lives in the wild. And while coupledom is common in captivity, it isn’t a given.

Like every other zoo, this one has a wish-list of animals they’re hoping to add. And an acquisition like Malala’s from a peer institution is the last way that a collection expands: more common than births, but less frequent than taking in orphans from the wild. For months, the two zoos exchanged information, audited finances, ran background checks, and coordinated logistics. The process seems like the hardest parts of both adoption and filling a fine-arts museum.

“Animals like a snow leopard have to fly on FedEx and have two people travel with it,” Lampi explained of Malala’s journey to Anchorage. Much of the global travel by mega-fauna heading to different zoos is facilitated by commercial and cargo airlines.

A pair of trumpeter swans at the Alaska Zoo, June 20, 2017 (Photo: Zachariah Hughes, Alaska Public Media)

Since Lampi took over as director, the non-profit zoo’s budget has doubled to $3 million. But that hasn’t gone to expanding the site’s foot-print in South Anchorage. Instead, the growth has mostly been geared toward improving animal habitats and adding staff, particularly educators to work with visitors.

Lampi said it’d be nice if they could get money from a state capital appropriation or municipal bond to buy up new land, build fancy new exhibits, and add new creatures, ideally more weasels, extra leopards, and possibly a rare Chinese goat called a Takin. But the fiscal landscape isn’t promising for that kind of expansion. Instead, his priority is fixing up more of the facilities on site, and growing the zoo from within.