Wildlife Center’s Programs Engage Visitors
By Emily Maxwell
Special to Glacier City Gazette
“Respect wildlife, respect wildness.” This is Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center Director of Development Trish Baker’s mantra. “Our mission is animal care and education about wildlife, so everything we do feeds that mission.”
The Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center (AWCC) in Portage is just 10 miles south of Girdwood and serves as a sanctuary for orphaned, injured or abandoned animals, many of which are discovered and brought to the facility by the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. Every year, the facility attracts visitors from all over the world wanting to get a closer look at animals like bison, elk and moose. Coming soon in a new public enclosure will be a wolverine named Kayla.
This summer, visitors will have an exciting opportunity to indulge their wild side when the nonprofit presents their new Carnivore Encounter program. Running from June 1-Sept. 30, the program will allow groups of up to 10 people to get up-close with bears and wolves. The 30-minute program will begin daily at 5 p.m. and will take place in a non-public area. For $75 a head, visitors will get the opportunity to get closer to the animals, and in some cases feed them, with plenty of time to ask questions.
The wolves of AWCC are part of the Wolf Ambassador Program, a national program aimed at educating and correcting misconceptions about wolves, commonly demonized figures in popular culture with the prevailing image of The Big Bad Wolf rooted in stories like Disney’s The Three Little Pigs.
Animal Keeper Jon Bogus trains the four AWCC wolves: Bri, Deshka, Dirus and Lothario, all of which are three to four years old.
“Training is still relatively new with them,” Bogus said. “We’re working fairly quickly though. Dirus is the most trained. He allows human contact and knows some more commands than the others.”
Bogus and other trainers use voice commands, hand gestures and whistles to train the wolves to sit, stand or lie down. The goal, of course, is animal care. The training allows staff to more easily administer veterinary care, including weighing the wolves and inspecting their teeth.
Respect for wildness comes in many forms, including what Baker calls “enrichment.” Park staff will often move dens, logs and other structures around in animal areas in order to give them new arrangements to explore, mimicking the dynamic nature of their natural habitats.
On the first Sun. of each month from Oct. to April, volunteers are invited to make “enrichment toys” to be given to the animals. The kinds of toys depend on the type of animal, but all are designed to stimulate curiosity. Kobuk, a three-year-old black bear, has a large tire with fire hose that crisscrosses inside. Smaller animals receive toys like papier-mâché balls with a treat inside (made with flour and not glue, says Baker).
Being a nonprofit, much of the educational materials and programs at AWCC are a result of grant money. Baker is in charge of applying for grants and has used the money for various exhibits and animal shelters. She also used grant money to purchase five microscopes for Bison Hall, the AWCC’s new educational and event venue, which is used for everything from school field trips to rentals for reunions and weddings. The microscopes are used as educational materials to examine things like the differences between hair and fur and even to get a closer look at animal scat. While five is a start, Baker says she’d like to have 30.
“That way, when we have an entire class, each student can have their own.”
Grant money also allows the AWCC to host students from Title 1 schools, federally-funded schools which provide lower-income students the opportunity to meet their educational goals. Baker says the money pays for students’ entry fees and it’s a positive experience for them.
“It allows the kids to experience science outside of a classroom in a real-world setting. They get so excited. We talk about hooves versus paws versus talons, we talk about eye placement, nose size. Students learn that this all means something.”
In November, the center hosted Paint an Antler, a paid event in which visitors got to create artwork out of antlers shed by animals, a resourceful way to make use of the sheds. The event was so popular, they hosted another one in February. Be Wild Gift Shop has two antlers painted by local artist Dawn Gerety for sale. There will be another event this November after animals have once again shed their antlers.
Visiting AWCC, swinging through the gift shop, taking part in the facility’s long-running animal adoption program or the new Carnivore Encounter program are all great ways to support our local animal sanctuary. Baker says the support helps, and every little bit counts.
“All the money people spend in the gift shop, that goes back to the wildlife center. Same thing with renting Bison Hall. That money and all the donations stay here. It all goes back to our mission, to our animal care.”
Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center
Mile 79 Seward Hwy