I am in Alaska at least once a year for my job, most recently in April, 2013. In April, it’s still the off-season in Anchorage before cruise ship season, with lots of snow still around. Many attractions are still closed but the Alaska Zoo is open year round. After hearing about a polar bear cub, Kali, temporarily residing at the zoo, I decided that a visit was a must.
Life in Alaska can be hard—especially during the winters—and I was glad to see that the Alaska Zoo takes in orphaned and injured animals from around the state. Several birds, including injured owls and eagles, reside at the zoo, including eagles with wing injuries (one had a partial amputation), hawks and owls, such as a hawk owl, which had a damaged eye. These birds would be unable to survive in the wild and I was pleased that they now have a home at the zoo.
During April, the zoo was still a “winter wonderland” and it was interesting being outside with different animals in the snow. Some of the animals are unique to the Arctic like two adult polar bears, who are a threatened species. Polar bears do not hibernate and need sea ice to hunt seals. Their fur appears white because it actually reflects light. I happened to see the polar bears during their mid-morning snack and the meat was quickly devoured.
Musk ox are also on display which are common in northern Alaska. Native Inupiaq refer to musk ox as oomingmak, which means an “animal with a skin like a beard”. The wool of the musk ox, also known as qiviut, is extremely warm and is knitted by Alaska Native cooperatives into sweaters, hats and scarves.
One of the newest zoo arrivals, Kali, is a polar bear cub who is just three or four months old. Unfortunately, Kali was orphaned on the Alaska North Slope near the Chukchi Sea and has been at the zoo since March (and is now a local “celebrity”). He is slowly being introduced to the public and currently is outside two hours daily. Kali was shy and it was an amazing experience watching him being bottle-fed by his handler. His formula is made of milk replacements, whipping cream, water and cod liver oil, which doesn’t sound very appetizing. To help Kali relax, his handler gave him a stuffed penguin toy, which Kali quickly attacked. As the zoo already has two adult polar bears, they are looking to find Kali a home somewhere at another zoo. It was fascinating seeing a baby polar bear and imagining how Kali would grow. I also didn’t realize that most polar bear cubs are all born in either December or January.
Other animals around the zoo include moose, which are common in Alaska. I actually saw one in the wild just a few blocks outside the zoo eating along the road. Other animals include arctic foxes (which blend into their landscape), yaks, lynx, tigers, wolves and coyotes. I especially liked the mountain goats, alpacas and Bactrian camels, which I had never heard of. I always think of camels in a hot climate in the desert, but Bactrian camels are from Mongolia and other Asian mountainous countries. The Alaska Zoo’s camel was huge with lots of thick hair for the cold.
Entry to the zoo is $12.00 with most of the zoo outside. I wasn’t expecting an outdoor zoo in Alaska to be open all year, but with the snow and the ice, the weather added to the atmosphere. For visitors to Alaska during the off-season, be careful, though, of slick ice on some of the zoo paths.
Signage for each animal gives excellent details including the average lifespan both in the wild and in captivity. The grounds also include a coffee shop (which I enjoyed with temperatures well below freezing) and a basic gift shop (mainly stocked with stuffed animals for children).
For visitors to Anchorage, the zoo includes unique species of animals not found in many places. I was impressed that the zoo also cares for injured and orphaned animals that otherwise would not have a chance of survival. The Alaska Zoo should be on any list for tourists visiting Anchorage as it’s an opportunity to learn about some of the magnificent animals that live in the cold.
The Alaska Zoo
4731 O’ Malley Road
Anchorage, Alaska 99507