Alaska Zoo serves education, conservation
A pair of harbor seals lounge around at the Alaska Zoo in Anchorage. The zoo, which is entirely supported by admission fees and private donors, saw an increase in visitors last year by about 11,000 compared to 2010. About 174,000 people visited the zoo in 2011.
Saira Bradner/For the Journal
Hear the one about the grizzly bear that broke into the Alaska Zoo?
There are a lot of Alaska Zoo stories, and this is a good one.
“Trouble,” as he was later named, had obviously been watching the zoo from the woods. Regular groceries seemed like a good idea.
So, he tunneled under the fence.
It happened at night, and the zoo staff found Trouble in the morning, inside the facility.
“We ran him off, but he came back. We sent him off again. When he came back again we decided to let him be our guest,” recalls Pat Lampi, the Alaska Zoo’s director.
The zoo already had grizzly bears, so Trouble wound up being a short-term guest and is now at the Lake Superior Zoo in Duluth, Minn., no doubt happy to be there.
The Alaska Zoo is an Anchorage institution that has long been a favorite for children and families. It was started by local businesswoman Sammy Seawell and a group of volunteers in 1969, and is on a pleasant 25-acre wooded tract on O’Malley Road in south Anchorage that was owned by Seawell.
The first five acres at the site were purchased by a group of donors and the zoo itself purchased the other 20 acres.
There are 110 animals, almost all from northern-climates, watched over by trained zoo keepers. The zoo specialized in Arctic and subarctic species, so there are bears – black, brown and polar – moose, caribou, musk ox, foxes, wolves, wolverines and porcupines, eagle and other birds, and a rare Snow leopards, Amur tigers and a Bactrian camel, whose native region is the cold deserts of central Asia. A mate is being sought for the camel, Lampi said.
Funding furry friends
Financially, the zoo is a private nonprofit that is self-sufficient in that no city or state operating subsidies are involved. The bills are paid by the zoo’s operating revenues and community donations.
There are 57 people on staff this summer, which will drop to 30 to 40 in winter, Lampi said. The operating budget is $2.1 million.
Admission fees are the biggest source of revenues, at $1.17 million last year; followed by unrestricted donations from the community at $340,000; $453,000 from concessions (food and souvenirs); and $120,000 in rental income, for weddings, company picnics and other events.
In a typical year the zoo spends about $400,000 on capital projects, most of which comes from special donations and, in recent years, small state capital grants, this year for $150,000.
The zoo is on a growth track, too. Last year 174,000 people visited the Alaska zoo, up about 11,000 from the previous year.
Donations of food and in-kind donations help defray expenses. Lampi said a lot of salmon is donated, usually as home freezers are cleaned out, as well as game meat and bones.
“The bones are great for the wolves and bears. It’s really good for them,” he said.
A lot of local companies make in-kind donations of surplus materials and services. Netting for a new aviary for bald eagles, opening this summer, were donated by Cook Inlet Region Inc., which had acquired property in south Anchorage with a golf-driving range that had to be dismantled.
The zoo has a set of blue-chip corporate supporters, too, said Floyd.
Among other programs, BP and Wells Fargo Bank sponsor the winter “zoo lights” which brightens walkways through the zoo from November through March, and with some lights in the shapes of animals, Floyd said. Winter is actually a good time to visit the zoo because the animals are active and can be seen.
Last spring ExxonMobil sponsored “Alaska Animals Day”, a day at the zoo for 1,300 first and second-graders from low income areas of the city. The company also sponsors “CSI Day,” a game at the zoo for middle-schoolers where “something happens” and children have to figure out what and what animal did it based on clues and animal tracks.
Most community zoos in the U.S. have some municipal support for funding from endowments. That the Alaska zoo is supported by a medium-sized community like Anchorage has caught a lot of notice.
Lampi said education is one area where the zoo’s activities are expanding, mainly through the summer camps. Zoo staff do travelling “show and tells” – with critters taken along – at schools and other public places, and even at corporate events.
“We take along a porcupine, hawk, owl or a fox – no tigers or bears,” Lampi said. The porcupine has developed a fondness for these “road trips” and gets excited when the travel cage comes out. “He knows he’s in for treats,” Lampi said.
Birth of a zoo
The zoo’s birth is an intriguing tale. An Anchorage businessman had won a baby elephant in a contest. When “Annabelle” arrived, less than a year old and already 500 pounds, he realized the challenge he had taken on and asked Seawell for help.
Seawell had an empty heated stall at her horse barn and a heart just as big. That was the start. Other animals followed.
For many years it was the Alaska Children’s Zoo with Annabelle as the most popular attraction. The name was changed in 1983 to signal the zoo’s expanded mission.
An elephant chum for Annabelle, Maggie, arrived in September of 1983 from Kruger National Park in Africa. Maggie was one of 20 surplus African elephant babies given to zoos by the park that year.
Annabelle passed away in 1997. In 2007 Maggie, her chum, was sent south to an animal retirement haven in California after the zoo decided elephants should be around other elephants.
The zoo has a broad mission these days including providing assistance to state and federal agencies on animal issues but the focus on children and education has remained, and has been expanded.
Meanwhile, long-time fixtures like the petting zoo, with goats, rabbits and chickens, is a popular attraction with children. The zoo’s summer education camps for young people have been expanded and are now done daily through the summer, an increase from previous years, according to Stephanie Hartman, the education director. In fact, the zoo has effectively doubled its capacity for children in the camps, which have different learning topics each day, including not on the animals but science topics like hibernation and habitat quality, as well as art, Hartman said.
There are winter classes and camps, too, on school holidays and in-service days.
One new project the zoo is working on ands raising funds for is distance-education, Hartman, the education director said. The idea is to allow the zoo’s classes on polar bears, for example, to be shared with children in all parts of Alaska and even Michigan, or Australia, and for the communication to be two-way, so questions can be asked. The zoo wants to develop “distance learning hot spots” at different parts of the zoo ground so a class on bears or wolves can be given via Internet with the animals being seen, Hartman said.
Lending a paw
The zoo has always provided a home for orphaned bear cubs and moose calves, but an important mission now is serving as a transit facility for orphaned Alaska animals being adopted by zoos out of state. Trained zoo staff are also on call to help state and federal agencies, and private industry, with certain kinds of animal emergencies.
Last year a polar cub was separated from its mother near the Alpine oil field on the North Slope, and was found by ConocoPhillips workers. Alaska zoo staff went north to help U.S. Fish and Wildlife biologists bring the young bear to the zoo in Anchorage. A home for “Qannik” was found at the Louisville Zoo in Kentucky.
“She weighed only 15 pounds when she came were able to get her up to 70 pounds within a couple of months,” Lampi said. At the Louisville zoo she now weighs in at 300 pounds.
This summer the zoo played host to three small black bear cubs, now sent south to other zoos, as well as moose calves. The zoo now has a special holding facility for young animals, as well as an animal infirmary.
Bear cubs can be mischievous, Lampi said.
“A year-old cub is an amazing climber,” he said. The cubs once scaled trees in their pen, requiring Lampi and other zookeepers to climb up and — gingerly — bring them down.
Being a zookeeper at the Alaska Zoo can require a diverse set of skills but most of the zookeepers have professional degrees such as in wildlife biology. Several have experience at other zoos, Lampi said.
Tree-climbing is among the other sklll sets that weren’t learned in a classroom.
Tim Bradner can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.