A Walk on the Wild Side
By Jennifer Tarnacki
It was Shakespeare that wrote, “One touch of nature makes the whole world kin.”
As I followed the head staff past the wolf enclosure I felt the touch, a sensation up my spine, startling me into awareness.
The wolf was eyeing me warily. Piercing, ancient intelligence shot from his dark eyes. He had me in his sight long before I became aware of him. His name was Lothario, and he looked like he could be stalking Little Red Riding hood from the depths of the black forests of the fairy tale.
“Wolves are some of the most misunderstood creatures” said Jen Christopherson, the education outreach and volunteer coordinator explains. Lothario paced in front of us endlessly, maintaining eye contact as she spoke. “These guys are ambassadors of their kind. They are really tight knit family units, primed for survival. They keep a healthy ecosystem, otherwise herbivores would take over.”
Misunderstood and maligned creatures, wolf behavior is explained as part of the new Walk on the Wild Side tour at Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center (AWCC). Watching them play is fascinating. Constantly vying for hierarchy in the pack, they nip and rustle with each other. It was easy to imagine them rollicking and rolling across an open field, senses alert, speed intact, communicating with each other to capture a bison on the plains.
Wolves are one of the several fascinating wild rescued animals in the Walk on the Wild Side tour, which offers a chance to get up close and personal with Alaska’s wildlife like brown bear, wolves, Sitka deer, lynx, foxes, musk ox, elk, and reindeer.
We were on the way to feed Snickers the porcupine. “I never name animals, Christopherson says, “I have a background as a park ranger, but it’s different here. This is their home. Snickers was found as a baby so young his umbilical cord was still attached from a mother just hit by a car.”
We open his enclosure, and a little bundle of raw energy starts scuttling and crawling around rapidly, tiny curious fingers prying up my leg. He grabs avocado slices from Christopherson’s hand like they’re old pals. I gazed at him in wonderment. I had never been so close to a porcupine, much less had one unabashedly begging me for treats.
A “foliavore” Christopherson called him. “Porcupines live in trees, sometimes only moving three feet a day, climbing only vertically. Their quills, all 30,000 of them, can also float, helping them cross rivers.”
Adjacent to to Snicker’s enclosure, a baby musk ox loped around in his pen, galloping towards the fence to suckle on Christopherson’s finger as we walked by. “Awww,” I couldn’t help but squeal. “Yeah they’re cute now” she says, “but they’re pretty dangerous. They get huge. Musk ox are ancient, and their fighting instincts are strong.”
The baby musk ox is still dependent on mother’s milk, so he is bottle fed. These baby animals trust, so their survival rooted to the wildlife trainers as though they are their mothers. It’s a contrast from the wild adults, so timid of humans. The connection is touching. They must trust, because here at AWCC, people are their saviors.
Sitting on 200 acres that started originally as a big game ranch, AWCC is now a non-profit. Set on the eastern end of Turnagain Arm, it’s a sanctuary for orphaned and rescued animals.
“We are really a niche here. There’s no rehabilitation center like this in this area of Alaska. We are the only one of its kind that I know,” Christopherson explains. “I have to think of it as though these are ‘my deer’ when I care for them. This is their home. Most are orphaned and won’t ever be reintroduced into the wild.”
The wildlife trainers are evident in their love of animals. Christopherson comes to AWCC with a Masters degree in natural resource management, and the other animal care staff have degrees ranging from psychology to biology. She plans out educational programs with her staff that they hope will connect and resonate with Alaskans.
The amazing ways animals adapt to their environment is taught in the “Awesome Adaptations” curriculum she developed. Not only about rehabilitation, AWCC is also about education and advocacy as well as being there for community as a source of information and knowledge.
The animals at AWCC come from rescues. AWCC works with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game who, when they get a wildlife call, watch for 72 hours before bringing the animal into the center. Others come to the center by way of the exotic illegal pet trade, like the resident red fox and lynx.
Caring for injured animals allow one to get a little closer to their lives, and in that act of connection much can be mined – treasures like education, advocacy and understanding.
Once here, the animals serve as educational ambassadors. The injured animals sit in their grandeur and beauty, living out their lives slightly diminished, but lovingly cared for. One such ambassador is the one-winged eagle. He survived a shot by a ‘hunter.’ One look at the mostly missing wing makes you appreciate his brothers and sisters flying fiercely through the sky.
Perhaps the most striking success story of human-animal alliance is found in the story of AWCC’s wood bison restoration project. The sheer amount of persistence and collaboration that went into the project brought back a species from extinction.
In 1941 wood bison were considered extinct. Since 2003, AWCC has worked heavily with Fish and Game on efforts to conserve the last remaining wood bison left in the world, and with the improbable efforts of both American and Canadian animal lovers, grew the herd up 150 for reintroduction into the wild.
“It was a huge undertaking, a big collaborative effort.” Christopherson explains, pointing out on the map where in interior Alaska the wood bison now roam. It’s in the middle of a region where a few remote communities live off of the road system.
Christopherson explained how the wood bison were transported, saying, “The females and juveniles could be flown up on a Hercules C130 flight, but since bulls can reach 2,400 pounds, and that much weight shifting in a plane can make the plane go down, so the bulls had to be barged up the river. It was a huge effort. Lots of hands were involved.”
AWCC organized and now has Bison Hall dedicated to the project, which plays a video of the epic journey and reintroduction. When the Hercules flight landed in the Innoko Valley in 2015, the bison were released onto pasture. Bison are keystone grazers, excellent at creating meadow habitat, so the ecosystem flourished.
According to Fish and Game’s most recent 2018 wood bison newsletter, the herd is going strong and several generations have been wild bred and wild born. They’re doing well enough that it is proposed that the village in Shageluk may subsistence hunt them in the future, something they hadn’t done in hundreds of years.
I felt my heart swell a little sitting in Bison Hall as the video closed on the bison, newly emerged out of his shipping container, capturing his first steps as wild creature. From a vanishing existence on the planet, to a new lease on life, the fragility of their existence as a species was alarming, as well as their successful reintroduction. Both spoke to the heavy responsibility humanity now has over the continuing biodiversity of our planet.
I felt immense gratitude for the human hearts and hands involved. Making sure wood bison didn’t go the way of the woolly mammoth or stellar sea cow, lost forever to extinction.
There are some who possess a deeper inner knowing that such things should be saved because they are priceless. Those who speak the animals’ language, the language of the wild, who’ve spent time studying them and their habitats, almost like canine or ursine or ungulate interpreters and translators. These are our allies in an interspecies alliance on the world, proving coexistence with wildlife can be possible.
A visit to Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center reminds us that, paradoxically, we are simultaneously wildlife’s biggest threat, as well as their only hope.
Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center
Mile 79 Seward HWY, Portage, AK