I got to give a very special tour this Saturday, to a group of new volunteers. It was to have been a thank-you tour for the Iditerod people who helped us out with our second annual IditaZoo celebration (which went very well, despite bad weather) but since none of them showed up, I had just the new volunteers. That was just fine with me, except that I was a bit more nervous than usual. I hadn't actually done a tour in a while, and to give a tour to fellow volunteers is a little strange. I kept expecting them to contradict me on my facts. That actually did happen once, at the silver fox. But now I have my story straight, and no harm was done.
I was excited to be able to see the two snow leopards, Kaz and Molly, together on one side of their enclosure finally. They have been getting used to each other lately, in hopes that a mating will actually occur so we can get busy with the raising of kittens. The two leopards are still not interested in each other except maybe as a sparing partner, however. We watched Kaz approach Molly and get a whopping for his efforts. He actually got his paw hurt, and had to go suck on it in the corner for a while. They certainly are magnificent animals.
The river otters have been relocated over next to the wolverines pen, in anticipation of their enclosure being renovated. However, when we got there we couldn't see them. I was really disappointed, as the pictures in John Gomes website sure looked cute. I had hoped to be able to watch them playing in the snow.
I found out just last night that Turbo, our big male river otter, bit his handler Liz. River otter bites are serious things, as they have a mouth full of very sharp teeth. Also, their diet - consisting of raw fish and other small animals found along the shores of a river - tends to make their mouths a great place for all kinds of germs and other nasty stuff. Liz was taken to the emergency room right away, so they could clean out the wound and get her started on antibiotics immediately. Both Liz and Turbo will live thru the incident, but it does remind us all that these animals are wild ones, no matter how "cute and cuddly" they may appear.
I had also hoped to be able to see the two new lynx kittens, but was again disappointed. Not only did we not see the two of them, we also did not see Mary Ellen, our own three-legged one. Marry Ellen is very rarely seen, though, so that's nothing new. But again, the pictures on John Gomes website are so cute, I really wanted to see them in person. For your own perusal of his website, check out: www.johngomes.smugmug.com
Last but certainly not least, I found out that Jenny, our female wolverine, is recovering from surgery. She had a tumor of some sort on her leg that had to be taken care of, as well as some routine "well-baby" stuff. She is reported to be recovering nicely, and should be back out on display soon. Jenny was born in 1998 and arrived at the zoo in 2000, from a wolverine farm in Washington state. She was born in captivity and was hand-raised by people, so is a little bit more social than Wilbur, our male. Here's a little bit about wolverines, taken from the Alaska Zoo's web site:
Wolverines are members of the weasel family. They are the largest terrestrial members of the family, which also includes river otters and mink among others. They have dark brown fur on their back, a pale brown stomach and a light stripe down their sides. Their teeth are large with powerful jaws to tear meat and break bones. They have five large, non-retractable claws on each paw, with paws being large to support movement on top of snow. Males can reach sizes of close to 50 pounds, with females being smaller at around 30 pounds. Wolverines in the wild can live to be 13, however most die at around age 7. They can easily live to be over 20 in captivity.
Wolverines are symbols of wilderness and usually live in very remote areas. They require large ranges to move as they search for food. Their range extended down through Canada and into to eastern United States at one point, but numbers have declined in these areas and their range has become smaller and more northern. There is a healthy population of wolverines in Alaska, although their true numbers are not known due to difficulty in surveying such an elusive animal. They are thought to be found in Alaska throughout the mainland and even on some of the islands. Many people spend their entire lives in wilderness areas and are lucky to see a wolverine even once.
Wolverine are powerful animals that prefer to scavenge instead of hunting themselves. While they are capable of capturing larger prey, they usually feed from kills of other predators or hunters. They will supplement this food with capturing small mammals and birds when they can, making them opportunistic predators. Their large teeth, strong jaws and powerful neck allow them to break bones and tear frozen meat in the winter. They will sometimes drag carcasses of animals three times their weight to areas where they can feed or store their food for future use. They have also been known to dig pits in which they can store food for use in winter months. Stories tell of pits found with incredible numbers of animals, such as 20 foxes and 100 ptarmigan carcasses. Wolverines are also adept at gorging themselves when food is available, leading to their scientific name "Gulo gulo". This name means "glutton". By gorging themselves, they are able to survive long periods where food is scarce.
Wolverines breed during the summer months, usually between May and August. The egg is fertilized during this time by the male, however it retains the ability to free-float in the uterus. It will implant when and if the female's body is in good condition, meaning food supplies will support the pregnancy in her body. If this does not occur, the fertilized egg does not implant. This phenomenon is known as delayed implantation. This is a characteristic found in many members of the weasel family.
The gestation period or pregnancy lasts into the fall and early winter, with births usually occurring in dens between January and April. Litters are usually no larger than four kits, with size of litters determined by the female's body condition. Kits are born blind, white, toothless, and only 4 inches long. They are weaned at around 8 weeks and are on their own by 6 months.
Wolverines are solitary creatures that rarely stay in one place for long. They can roam an average of 40 miles per day in search of food over home ranges of up to several hundred square miles. This is an incredible indication of their strength and endurance. Males and females are solitary all year, except for brief encounters during breeding season.
It goes without saying that wolverines are also shy of people. They prefer a solitary existence away from humans and development. This is contrary to what most people believe of wolverines. They are generally seen as fierce and aggressive predators that will attack humans, but this is false. They avoid humans at all costs and usually only attack smaller prey than themselves. Because they are opportunistic, they will take advantage of easy food such as animals caught in traps. In cases where they are cornered or trapped, they are very aggressive (as any animal or human would be). But these cases are not indicative of their overall shy and reclusive manner.
The dangers wolverines face in the wild include other predators such as wolves and human trapping. They are also susceptible to starvation if food supplies drop off. While their population in Alaska is believed to be healthy, they are very difficult to survey for accurate numbers. The best way to protect them is to protect large areas of wilderness for them to inhabit, as this is one species that will likely never adjust to living in close quarters with humans. Alaska Department of Fish and Game also closely manages harvests of wolverines annually to ensure that over-harvest does not occur.