Behind the scenes at The Alaska Zoo // © 2016 Christopher Batin
Feature image (above): During the Zookeeper for a Day program, guests feed gray wolves. // © 2016 iStock
The day was one to remember: I hand-fed 9-foot-long Amur River tigers, their long, yellow canines gingerly pulling moose meat from my hesitant fingers. I stroked the silvery velvet fur of Alaska gray wolves, their penetrating eyes anticipating the treat I was about to give them. I scratched the snouts of playful Sitka blacktail deer as they nuzzled my hand for tasty deer pellets.
These were just some of my favorite moments of the “Zookeeper for a Day” program at The Alaska Zoo in Anchorage.
Patrick Lampi, executive director for the zoo, created this exciting and educational opportunity for visitors and, in my book, it ranks as Alaska’s best animal-interaction tour. That might be a bold statement in a state where $800 wildlife tours often consist of watching wild critters with binoculars from 100 yards away or more. At The Alaska Zoo, however, for a donation of $200, visitors can enjoy six hours of up-close encounters with a variety of animals.
Experienced caretakers are the tour guides that teach and mentor visiting zookeepers. I cut and portioned out herring, salmon and chicken, carefully weighing and mixing servings for each animal. I then fed animals such as tigers and wolves by hand, as well as more mild-mannered wildlife.
The tigers, camels, moose, mountain goats and gray wolves required more training and caution. Keeper Tim Lescher taught me how to introduce myself to the wolf pack. My face was inches from the screen fence where five wolves huddled as they anticipated a feeding.
“Feed the alpha male first, or possible fights might ensue among the subordinate wolves,” Lescher said.
After I placed scent in their area for them to find, we listened to them howl.
Other highlights of the zookeeper experience included getting too close to a rutting male Bactrian camel (he spit at me) and watching Olga the wolverine find the hidden scents and raw chicken popsicles we hid in the enclosed forested area that was her home.
Wildlife-viewing tours have their pros and cons, but I haven’t found any that can match the hands-on feeding and educational opportunities of being Zookeeper for a Day.
Because of how intensive the program is for the staff, Zookeeper for a Day is only available during the off-season, September through May 15. The donation of $200 per person is earmarked for zoo maintenance and operations.
For animal lovers, the experience is well worth the expense.