The Alaska Zoo: Amazing Animals, Superb Staff, Affordable Admission
The Alaska Zoo houses several Arctic and sub-Arctic bird species, such as owls, hawks, merlins, and magpies.
Photo by John Gomes
I was invited to visit with Alaska Zoo Development Director Jeannette Menchinsky and Curator Shannon Jensen on a brisk morning in April; after Menchinsky and I chatted in her office overlooking Caesar the Alpaca’s pen, we set out into the zoo to meet up with Jensen and happened to come across her just outside the wolf exhibit. While she educated me about some of the rescue animals that the Alaska Zoo has taken in, the wolves began to howl. It’s a blessing I was recording Jensen’s comments because for a moment I heard nothing but the wolves as the young Alaskan in me suddenly and viscerally remembered the Alaska Zoo is just awesome.
The best time to visit the Alaska Zoo, says Jensen, is early morning or late evening: “These animals are all Arctic or sub-Arctic, so they don’t really like hot weather, and they would rather be active when it’s cooler.” Fortunately, during the summer the Alaska Zoo is open from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m., which grants ample opportunities to see the animals at their best.
She explains that the animals at the Alaska Zoo cannot be released into the wild: either they were born into captivity, orphaned or injured, or confiscated from people who were illegally keeping them as pets. Most of the birds are injured or non-flighted, for example. Because the animals are Arctic or sub-Arctic, they’re kept in outdoor exhibits and reside there year-round, with the exception of the sharp-shinned hawk and a merlin. “Because they have a really high metabolism, in the winter, when it’s cold, they have to eat so much, nearly one-third to one-half of their body weight; we were feeding them multiple times a day just to maintain their weight, so we just put them inside where it’s more comfortable for them,” Jensen says.
In May Alaska Zoo welcomed Malala, a two-year-old snow leopard.
Photo by John Gomes
It may seem obvious, but Alaska Zoo employees know their animals, and they are delightful. Menchinsky mentions that Caesar, her pseudo officemate, “really likes bananas.” The camels are occasionally bribed with peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, which they love. “The Lynx likes to sit in boxes, just like your house cat,” Jensen says, explaining the open box casually sitting on the ground in their exhibit. “They actually put a little box in there, and sure enough they tried to get in there just like you see on the Internet with the cat trying to get in a way-too-small box.”
Zoo staff wondered if the tigers would react the same way and placed a large box in their cage. “They just squish it,” Jensen laughs. What the tigers do enjoy is various colognes and perfumes. The staff will spray some on the trees in their exhibit and the tigers love to smell and rub against it. They also love chewing on pizza boxes.
“Watching and observing the animals, you just see things,” Jensen says. “Like the brown bears: when they eat, say you give them an apple or something, they will take it and put it on the back of their one paw and just eat it really daintily.”
Of course, the only way to see the animals (other than the Alaska Zoo’s live polar bear cam at alaskazoo.org/live-polar-bear-camera) is to visit. While the zoo is excited to for Alaska’s guests to come see some of the Last Frontier’s more exotic native animals, Jensen and Menchinsky both say the zoo is an attraction for Alaska residents. She says that some locals use the Alaska Zoo as an intriguing place to take laps. “It’s a great place for walkers; it’s safe, and you don’t have to worry about a moose or bear around the corner—I mean, that’s out,” Jensen says.
The Alaska Zoo has two polar bears, Ahpun and Lyutyik, which can be seen live through the zoo’s polar bear camera at alaskazoo.org/live-polar-bear-camera.
Photo by John Gomes
Menchinsky says the zoo is a great resource for parents, because it offers regular activities and camps and is open year-round. “There are only two days a year that we close: Christmas Day and Thanksgiving Day,” she explains. Whenever school is out the zoo has a camp available, including Memorial Day, President’s Day, and during Spring Break. The camps are behind-the-scenes adventures from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. for children ages six through twelve and include animal encounters, hands-on activities, and fun experiences. For example, the kids may provide “enrichment” for the animals—while the animal is kept safely in its den, the children can enter the habitat and set out toys or hide treats for their new friends to find.
The Alaska Zoo is a nonprofit organization, and unlike many other zoos nationwide, does not receive funding from the municipality or state. Menchinsky says that 80 percent of their budget for the feeding and care of the animals comes through gate admissions. The zoo holds regular fundraising events and programs to raise the other 20 percent, including the annual Feast for the Beasts in June, and an ongoing “adoption” program.
Jensen and Menchinsky emphasize the best way to support the zoo is to just visit; maybe the wolves will say hello.
This article first appeared in the July 2017 print edition of Alaska Business.