Alaska’s Wildlife Rehab Centers
Saving lives, educating the public
Moose calves at feeding time at the Alaska Zoo.
John Gomes | Alaska Zoo
One of the biggest draws for tourists coming to Alaska is the chance to see wildlife in its natural setting. The only problem with this is that sometimes wildlife doesn’t want to be seen. In order to provide a way for people to learn more about the state’s animals, as well as to give orphaned or injured creatures a second chance, a number of rescue and rehabilitation centers serve the dual mission of saving wildlife while educating the public about their care.
Chloe Rossman | Alaska SeaLife Center
A rescued walrus calf being bottle fed.
The Alaska SeaLife Center, for example, serves as both a research facility and a public aquarium. Now celebrating its twentieth anniversary, the center rescues marine mammals that are orphaned or suffer from injuries.
“Our goal is to release most of the animals that we save,” explains Brett Long, director of animal programs. He says that the SeaLife Center answers a couple of hundred calls a year, with about thirty of those requiring active response. “We bring about ten to fifteen animals from these calls into the center, and most of them are releasable.”
The center has an agreement with the National Marine Fisheries Service to serve Southcentral and also works with a number of stranding agreement holders to transport animals to safety. While most animals can be released after being nursed back to health, some—such as ice seals, sea otter pups less than six months old, and walrus calves less than two years old—are ineligible for release.
“Sea otters and walruses have long maternal dependency periods, so while we can stabilize them, we can’t teach them how to forage or groom appropriately,” says Long. “Walruses also bond very quickly to their human caregivers because they are so social, and we can only release animals into the wild that are healthy and not dependent on humans.”
Chloe Rossman | Alaska SeaLife Center
A ringed seal pup being examined after arriving at the Alaska SeaLife Center.
When an animal arrives at the SeaLife Center, it undergoes a health assessment, and a treatment plan is created to deal with malnutrition, dehydration, or any external wounds. “For the first twenty-four to forty-eight hours, we work to maintain their body temperature and get them hydrated with an electrolyte solution, maybe incorporating fish formula or milk matrix,” says Long. “Most of these animals require twenty-four hour care and need to be fed every two to four hours.”
If the animal is thought to be releasable, it is kept away from the public so that it does not become habituated to humans. Nonreleaseable animals can be viewed by the public in the I Sea U, which allows them to learn more about the animals and how the center cares for them while they are in such a critical state.
Chloe Rossman | Alaska SeaLife Center
A rescued beluga whale calf being examined in ASLC’s outdoor pool.
“The public aquarium portion of our facility, which is in a different area than the wildlife response portion of our mission, provides an unbelievable chance for people to see animals in a meaningful way,” says Long. “It also gives us a chance to educate them on how they can help these animals and what they should or shouldn’t do when they encounter a wild animal.”
The SeaLife Center provides a number of different educational programs throughout the year, including school programs for children in grades K-12. Its staff travels to different parts of the state to share the center’s curriculum, and fifth-graders at Tier 1 schools in Anchorage also learn about Alaska’s marine animals in the classroom and through SeaLife Center visit.
As one of the northernmost coastal research facilities in the United States, the SeaLife Center provides the infrastructure needed to research coldwater species, and it established an Oil Wildlife Response program that gives staff the opportunity to travel to the site of an oil spill to help affected animals, which can then be released after receiving care.
Approximately 150 to 200 birds come through the Juneau Raptor Center each year, including everything from songbirds and water birds to corvids and snowy owls. The organization works in conjunction with the Alaska Raptor Center in Sitka (which has an avian vet) to rescue and rehabilitate injured or orphaned birds.
“The majority of birds we get include small songbirds that are suffering from cat bites or injuries from falling out of the nests as fledglings,” says Dale Cotton of the mostly volunteer organization. The group employs full-time naturalists who conduct presentations with their bald eagle, Lady Baltimore, at the top of the Goldbelt Tram.
“What’s really neat is that most people have never seen an eagle up that close,” says Cotton of the rescued bird, which was rehabbed by the center after being shot. “We share her story and talk about what it takes to help Alaska’s birds.”
The Alaska Raptor Center rescues between 100 and 200 birds annually with the goal of releasing them back into the wild. Those that cannot be released join the Raptors-in-Residence program, which provides entertainment and education to the more than 36,000 visitors and 15,000 schoolchildren who are reached by the center each year.
Tuliaan arrived at Fortress of the Bear weighing 17 pounds, and was nursed back to health by the staff.
In 2002, Les and Evy Kinnear opened the Fortress of the Bear, which is dedicated to the rescue of orphaned bear cubs in Alaska. In 2007, eight days after receiving their bear permits, a cub from Angoon named Killisnoo arrived, and since then thirteen bears have been rescued by the organization with seven becoming permanent residents of the Baranof Island facility. The animals that do not stay are sent to other facilities, such as the Bronx Zoo, after being temporarily housed at the Fortress.
While the goal is to release bears back into the wild in the future, right now the organization works to rescue the animals they can while educating the public about bear safety, how to interact with bears in the wild, and what happens when there are bear/human conflicts.
“We want people to understand that the bears are here as a result of human behavior,” says Bear Manager Claire Turner. “By serving as captive ambassadors for their wild counterparts, we hope that our bears will not only help to reduce these types of conflicts by teaching people the importance of following trash regulations, for example, but will also help reduce people’s paranoia and fear of the animals and help them develop a healthy respect. The lessons they teach will rescue future generations of bears.”
Killisnoo, a cub from Angoon, was the first bear to find a home at the Fortress of the Bear.
The animals are kept as naturally as possible and forage for their food, which includes live salmon in their pools and seasonally appropriate vegetation. Tourists benefit by seeing bears exhibiting natural behavior, which they might never see in the wild.
“People spend a lot of money on floatplane tours and wildlife tours and never see an animal,” says Turner. “Here, they are guaranteed to see the bears, and all of the money they spend goes straight back into the nonprofit, whose end goal is rehab and release.”
While the sanctuary is not able to release bears into the wild yet, Turner hopes to see this happening in the near future. “It’s legal in Canada, Europe, and twenty-nine states in the Lower 48, and we’re confident we can do it here,” she says. “Unlike our current bears, who are very friendly with people, bears to be released would be raised in a secondary site closed to the public to give them the best chance of survival in the wild.”The Alaska Zoo recently had its own run of bear cubs, with eleven black and brown bear cubs coming into the rescue last year. “It’s the most we’ve ever had,” says Executive Director Patrick Lampi, “and the fact that we found homes for all of them was pretty miraculous.”
Both photos by John Gomes | Alaska Zoo
FIRST: Polar bear cub at the Alaska Zoo. SECOND: Got milk? Bear cub at the Alaska Zoo.
The zoo, which turns fifty next year, works with the Alaska Department of Fish & Game (ADF&G) and the US Fish & Wildlife Service (USFWS) to facilitate care of injured or orphaned animals. Part of their mission is also to educate the public as to what they can do to prevent animals from ending up in hurt, injured, orphaned, or too habituated to human life.
“Two of the bear cubs came from Deadhorse, where a private business was not locking up their dumpsters, so the animals became habituated to hanging out behind the restaurant,” says Lampi. “The mother had to be destroyed, and the cubs came to us because they were no longer afraid of people.
“We would all prefer to see these animals in the wild, but due to these types of circumstances, some of them end up here,” he adds. “We hope that they serve as ambassadors for their species and help in future conservation efforts.”
In addition to bear cubs, the zoo has become home to quite a few moose over the years, taking up to a dozen orphaned calves at one time. They also rescue caribou, harbor seals, river otters, and mink and have a letter of authorization from USFWS for “activities related to the rescue (including temporary capture, possession, transport, and transfer), rehabilitation, and release of polar bears.” The organization also partners with USFWS as part of an oil spill response team.
John Gomes | Alaska Zoo
Wolf pup being cuddled by Alaska Zoo Executive Director Patrick Lampi.
Wood Bison, Wolves, and More
Just like the Alaska Zoo, the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center (AWCC) is home to a number of different animals, most notably the wood bison, the largest land animal in North America.
“We have seventeen species of Alaska animals here, including moose, Sitka deer, lynx, porcupine, and more,” says Trish Baker, director of development. “Our emphasis is on providing sanctuary to orphaned animals; we rarely release animals back into the wild. They live with us for life.”
AWCC works with ADF&G to receive animals after it has been determined that they are orphaned and in need of a home. After being quarantined, the animals are gradually introduced into the sanctuary to make sure that they can adapt to life in human care.
One notable exception to this is the herd of wood bison that was released to the Innoko River in 2015. “The wood bison species was thought to be extinct until a herd was found in Canada in 1957, and that country shared some of the bison with us, which resulted in us having fifty-three of the animals at AWCC,” says Baker. “In 2015, we took part in a massive project to release a number of these animals into the wild, which was very successful. The Alaska Department of Fish & Game can see from flyovers that they are now having babies.”
Both photos by Doug Lindstrand | AWCC
FIRST: A female wolf at the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center. SECOND: A wood bison at the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center. While most animals at the AWCC stay at the sanctuary forever, a herd of wood bison was successfully released into the wild in 2015.
Visitors to the center can learn about the animals during presentations at the enclosures or take a Walk on the Wild Side 90-minute tour with a guide. “For many people, seeing animals in this setting is the only way that they’ll see Alaska wildlife,” says Baker. “It gives them a strong appreciation for the animals and for wildness, which helps in conservation efforts.
“We are taking our research and education programs to a whole new level,” she adds of the addition of Bison Hall, a new education building that will house numerous educational displays.
Visitors can even “adopt” an animal with a donation, which gets them a plush stuffed animal and a certificate. “It’s a chance for them to participate in helping these animals—and how cool is to say you’ve adopted a musk ox?” laughs Baker.
Wild animals are always best left in the wild, but for those who are orphaned or injured, there are many organizations willing to help rescue and rehabilitation them, while educating humans about how to reduce their impact on the natural world.
Vanessa Orr is a freelance writer and former editor of the Capital City Weekly in Juneau.