Fifty miles south of Anchorage, and a few hours into a Turnagain Arm sightseeing trip, I'd stopped at the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center. Clouds covered the distant peaks of the Chugach Mountains, but the sky above was clear and sun shone across the sanctuary's sprawling brushlands.
Several ghostly trees punctuated the landscape, each petrified by saltwater that rushed inland when the 1964 Great Alaskan Earthquake caused the ground to sink between 6 and 12 feet.
I passed through a metal gate and kneeled down, holding out some fruit as a chubby bundle of quills shuffled over for a snack. Snickers, a 15-year-old porcupine who stars in his own viral YouTube videos, ate the grapes, blueberries and avocado chunks straight from my hand.
"The closer our visitors get to these animals, the more they learn," said my tour guide, naturalist intern Marissa Lindstrom. "The more they learn, the more they're willing to protect and conserve."
Home to about 125 animals representing 16 species, the center introduces Alaska's wildlife through education, research, conservation and animal care programs. Mike Miller established the facility in 1993 as Big Game Alaska, bringing a few elk and plains bison to scenic land along the Seward Highway. He and his team soon welcomed other species to the facility; the attraction restructured as a nonprofit and adopted the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center name in 2004.
The Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center is home to 125 animals representing 16 species, including wolves. Photo Credit: Doug Lindstrand
Around the same time, the sanctuary partnered with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game to raise and reintroduce the nearly extinct native wood bison into the wild. A group of 130 of the animals was released in western Alaska in 2015, and visitors can still view a small herd of the threatened species at the center.
On standard visits and special tours, visitors can also meet reindeer, wolves, owls and other animals.
"We offer several free daily programs, with a goal of teaching people about wildlife -- and making sure they don't interfere with animals in the wild. If you're see something and think an animal might be orphaned, for example, don't pet or touch or feed it. Just call the department of fish and game," said center executive director Di Whitney. "Wild animals need special diets, enrichment activities and care. It's not like just owning a dog or a cat, and that's a big difference that many people don't realize."
These are some of the lessons that visitors learn during the center's year-round animal talks, which are free with admission. Ticketed encounters with bear, moose, musk oxen, caribou and other species engage visitors in training and feeding exercises.
Additional experiences include a winter antler-painting workshop, which raises funds for the facility's conservation work, and luncheons where visitors help staffers create activities for the animals.
The opportunity to feed Snickers and his fellow porcupines is one option on the center's behind-the-scenes Walk on the Wild Side tour ($100 per person, including admission). On my hosted outing, I also fed a herd of Sitka black-tailed deer and marveled at Artemis, a spunky, young musk ox who was orphaned after a grizzly attacked her herd on Alaska's North Slope. A rescue team found Artemis under a utility shed and flew her to Anchorage, where she was greeted by Whitney and a colleague.
These days, Artemis romps in the grass and chases an inflatable ball as part of her ongoing enrichment.
"Those enrichment activities have become a big focus here in recent years. When our animals get toys and interact, they stay mentally stimulated and live happier, better lives," Whitney said.
A bison calf makes its home at the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center. Photo Credit: Doug Lindstrand
Over the past 18 months, teams have also renovated and expanded several enclosures across the 200-acre sanctuary. New shelters now accommodate deer, moose, caribous, reindeer, bison and elks, offering warmth in the winter and shade on sunny summer days. Crews have built new spaces for foxes, coyotes and porcupines, and construction on a wolverine enclosure wrapped up in December.
"Even though we're a conservation center and our animals are behind fence lines, we pride ourselves in having really large, natural enclosures. The brown bears, for instance, have more than 10 acres of land, and the black bears have about 5 acres," said Whitney.
Many of the center's animals arrive at the facility after being orphaned or injured. Hugo, the center's only grizzly bear, was found malnourished and covered in porcupine quills in 2000. Her neighbors, brown bear siblings JB and Patron, came to the center after their mother was killed in 2004. Adonis, a bald eagle who has lived there since 1995, was found with a gunshot wound and later had his left wing amputated.
Kit Kat, a porcupine who snacks on walnuts, landed at the sanctuary in 2015. Though one of his legs was amputated after he was caught in a trap near Anchorage, he enjoys crawling over logs and exploring his enclosure.
"Kit Kat, like most of our animals, will live his whole life here. We give homes to animals that might not otherwise have a place to go, and they're all ambassadors for their wild counterparts," Whitney said. "Our visitors learn to respect and protect these animals for the generations to come."
Center admission is $17 for adults, $15 for military members and individuals over age 65, $13 for children ages 7 to 17 and free for ages 6 and under. Admission is included with select paid tours.
Details are at www.alaskawildlife.org.