The Alaska Zoo is nearly at capacity for housing orphaned animals. In late May, the zoo welcomed a very talkative brown bear cub nicknamed Gator from Hood Bay, near Angoon. Six moose calves followed soon after, each nicknamed after Australian wildlife: Kangaroo, Mouse, Wombat, Echidna, Emu and Wallaby.
“From this time on up through July is when we’re usually busiest in receiving orphaned animals,” said the zoo’s executive director, Pat Lampi.
The zoo is also hosting Grubby the opossum, who hitched a ride from Washington to Homer in a shipping container this spring. Although she’s now out of the wild, biologists are still trying to catch a litter of her offspring born before her capture late last month.
Lampi said the number of orphans the zoo can foster is decided by the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, and depends on how many permanent homes are available that year.
The zoo doesn’t keep the orphans it takes in. The staff’s focus is on rehabilitating the animals, which often arrive emaciated or in poor health. Once they’re healthy the zoo works with Fish and Game to place them, usually at zoos in the Lower 48. Lampi said they’ve sent orphans to zoos all across the United States.
“It’s not the ideal situation because they’re not in the wild, but these animals can be saved,” he said. “They can be ambassadors for their species and do a lot of really good education and conservation work.”
But transporting animals can be tricky. They’re usually sent on cargo flights with multiple attendants. They need permits, medical records and health certificates.
In the meantime, the orphans are on public view at the Alaska Zoo – Gator the bear in the orphaned cub facility, and the moose calves right next door in the infirmary yard.
In the wild, Lampi said it’s important not to assume a young animal is orphaned just because it’s alone. Many species will leave their babies to go foraging.
“It’s best not to interfere,” he said. “You contact somebody with Fish and Game and let them know where it is and then let them make sure it’s really an orphan and that, out of the goodness of your heart, you’re not creating the orphan yourself.”
The zoo took in an orphaned polar bear cub named Kova in November, who was found living under a building by a dumpster in Prudhoe Bay. She was placed under rabies quarantine protocol for six months, which ended May 30. Kova made her first public appearance at the zoo on Sunday.