AWCC’s New Calves and a Cuddly Porcupine
By Marc Donadieu
Glacier City Gazette
With spring’s arrival, animals are giving birth at Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center (AWCC), offering an opportunity for visitors to see the newborns up close. So far, two reindeer and a musk ox have been born. More births are hoped for, but animal keepers don’t know which females are pregnant.
A visit to AWCC offers an interesting learning experience with chances to get close up photos of Alaska wildlife. Visitors can attend informative wildlife programs and feedings throughout the day. In addition, Bison Hall is nearing completion, which will upgrade and expand the facility’s food service program.
To better understand these developments, the Gazette was given a tour by Office Manager Michelle Richter and joined by Animal Keeper Brad Parsons who let us enter the reindeer enclosure for close range photos of the adults and calves. The reindeer were watchful but didn’t seem to mind a paparazzi presence.
With most reindeer lying on the ground, it was impossible not to notice Chuckles, a five-year old male with huge, velvet-covered antlers gracing his head. He was strutting back and forth yet keeping some distance and eventually he lay down and rested his impressive antlers on the ground. Chuckles is halter trained, and during the summer he is taken for daily walks around AWCC to interact with visitors.
Reindeer are domesticated caribou. Differences between species include reindeer commonly standing shorter and stouter with antlers growing asymmetrically. Reindeer farms are typically the source for the center’s males because older animals require greater care and can be aggressive during rut.
“It’s easier to take care of the smaller guys,” Parsons said. “That’s why we end up getting quite a few male reindeer here.”
Holly and Hope are mothers to two male reindeer calves. The first is nearly a month old and the second is a week younger. With the calves yet unnamed, we joked they probably would not be called Sausage and Jerky. Besides reindeer milk, the calves are starting to eat reindeer grains, a mixture that ensures they are getting the nutrients they need.
Parsons didn’t know the reindeer were pregnant and didn’t see any signs of impending birth after making his morning rounds in the enclosure. School children touring the center informed him of the calf’s birth.
“A school group let us know,” Parsons said. “I had already fed the reindeer for the day. The kids asked, ‘How old is the reindeer calf?’ I came back out here and sure enough Holly had already had her calf. We came out to her, grabbed the calf real quick and gave it a few injections for meds and supplements.”
The tour then took an unexpected detour to the porcupine pen to meet Snickers, one of two at AWCC. Richter was excited about the encounter.
“I thought bears and moose would be my favorite animals,” Richter said, “and then I met Snickers. I fell in love with a rodent. He’s a special rodent. He was taken when he was a young porcupine; it’s called a porcupette. A family found him in the wild and took him home.”
A family assumed young Snickers was orphaned and illegally kept him. He was raised inside the house for two years, and the family let him sleep on the bed with the kids. This upbringing conditioned him to humans, and it shows in his behavior, especially his need for attention and affection.
Richter invited me to step down into Snickers’ pen. The first thing I noticed was the inescapable, pungent reek of porcupine. Imagine what you would smell like if you worked out vigorously every day for 30 days without showering. Combine that scent with notes of an out-of-order bar urinal trough still in use and you have a close approximation of Snicker’s cologne of choice.
Richter has a thick, red jacket she wears to absorb quills from handing the spikey rodent. However, Eau de Snickers lingers on Richter long into the day, leading people to mistakenly assume she doesn’t bathe regularly–if she forgets to mention she has been handling a porcupine.
On this visit, the sociable Snickers is clingy, desiring Richter’s attention. He climbs up on her and refuses to let go or return to his log, despite numerous polite pleas. When he starts biting with his vivid red teeth to climb her, she tells him to stop to some avail. At 30 pounds with about 30,000 quills and sharp claws, he is a handful.
Richter tries gentle persuasion to detach Snickers, but he does not want to cooperate. He wants more affection.
“Baby, you’ve got to let me go,” Richter pleaded.
That was my cue to leave and let Richter her fend for herself. There was a musk ox calf to photograph. When I caught up with Richter later, she was laughing about the quills in her hearty jacket and her enchanting aroma of porcupine perfume.
AWCC has 11 musk oxen, and females are currently kept separate from males to protect the calves. Mukluk gave birth to a calf four days ago, and there may be three more calves on the way.
“Usually the mom’s with calves like to be together,” Parsons said. “If you try to separate one of the females, she will try to fight to get back to the rest of the herd. Older males, yearlings or two year olds can get aggressive with calves, so we separate them for their safety.”
To lure the female musk oxen and calf in for a photo shoot, Parsons and two women placed musk ox grains in a number of spread out bowls. Parsons explained the grains.
“It’s a formula used by the musk ox farm up in Palmer that we all get from Mill and Feed in Anchorage,” Parsons said. “It’s a bunch of different things mixed together. A lot of it is crude fiber. They need quite a bit of fiber in their diet.”
Musk oxen are grazers that eat grass most of the spring, summer and into early fall when it dies. Then they eat hay through winter, going through a bale a week. They also receive daily two pounds of musk oxen grain.
After the grains were gone, the calf started nursing, which involves a lot of head jabs by the calf.
“Musk ox udders are far back in the body,” Parsons explained. “Typically you’ll see calves going to back legs. Those udders are covered in quite a bit of dense hair, so they’ll just ram their faces up until they hit the udder. They do the same thing to people when bottle feeding.”
Parsons said AWCC is close to making a decision whether to separate the calves, bottle raising them away from their mothers or to let them remain together. Each option has benefits and drawbacks.
“The soil around here is pretty deficient in copper and selenium,” Parsons said, “which are two really vital elements for the development of their systems. There have been three times now where we have pulled the calves and bottle raised them and reintroduced them to the herd when they were about a year old. We may try to leave them in with mom. Her milk is definitely the best thing for them. We might just have to go in and supplement them ourselves later.”
There are other developments afoot at AWCC. Bison Hall is nearing completion. Besides being an education center, Bison Hall will have a kitchen and a dining facility to upgrade AWCC’s food offerings. In the mean time, there is a food area in the veranda next to the gift shop and a few tables for seated dining seven days a week. There will also be a food truck with a kitchen built around it. An alcohol license should be approved soon.
Every day during the summer, there will be education programs from 10:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. There is the reindeer walk with Chuckles and programs about lynx, porcupine, Kobuk the black bear cub, birds and foxes. The bears will be combined into one program this year. Check https://www.alaskawildlife.org/ for more details.
A new program is the moose encounter, which is good for the moose and fun for people. The center faces occasional problems with people feeding moose random stuff it probably shouldn’t eat. For $10, visitors can feed freshly cut browse to the moose in a supervised encounter.
AWCC offers visitors a lot to see and learn, and you might come away with photos of a lifetime. New food facilities will encourage visitors to stay longer and take more in. Just be sure to avoid the porcupines before or after you eat.