Friday, March 27, 2009

Volcanic Ash -vs- The Animals at The Alaska Zoo

I was asked a very good question the other day, one I didn’t know the answer to. “What is the zoo’s plan for all the animals if Anchorage should happen to get the ash-fall from Mt. Redoubt?”

I know from experience that volcanic ash is not something you want to be breathing in. Just 5 minutes of being outside during Mt. Spur’s eruption back in 1992 had my throat raw and burning.

So what do we do with the animals? I asked Shannon Jensen, the curator of the zoo that very question.

Here’s the plan:

Animals which can be moved inside will be. These include most of the ones who have the worst medical conditions like the birds and small mammals.

Animals like the tigers, polar bears, and such will be put in lock-down in their dens. This will provide them with some protection, at least. The dens are not ventilated with filters or anything like that, but at least they will be out of direct contact.

Unfortunately, that does leave some animals outside. The yaks, the musk ox, the moose: all of these animals, and more, cannot be crated up or transported anywhere so will have to be left outside. They will be tended to after the event, should any have need of medicinal care.

We will just have to hope for either no ash (not likely, since we’re already experiencing it in trace amounts) or for precipitation. Either rain or snow falling either during or after the ash would be immensely helpful.

We’ll just have to wait and see.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Glacier Valley Farms CSA

Yesterday, I picked up my first box of produce from the local CSA group that I joined recently. I have to say I’m hooked: it’s all really good food, and there’s a lot of it – but not so much that I’ll waste any. Most of it is local, but all of it is organic. You can sign up for once a week, every other week, once a month – however often you want.

Plus, they give you lots of recipes to try out any new foods you might not be familiar with.

Here’s a list of what I got, and for only $30.

From Alaska’s Glacier Valley Farm and VanderWeele Farm:
4 Alaskan russet potatoes
a bunch of Alaskan carrots
2 small Alaskan green cabbages
4 small Alaskan onions

From Outside:
1 certified organic cauliflower
a bunch of certified organic spinach
1 carton certified organic white mushrooms
a bunch of certified organic cilantro
4 certified organic Granny Smith apples
3 certified organic navel oranges
2 certified organic d’Anjou pears

I highly recommend you sign up and start getting your own boxes!

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

The Alien is Gone

He passed away on Friday, March 23, at 10:15 am.

I suppose I should write some moving memorial about him, to commemorate his existance and show the world how much I loved him.

But honestly, I just can't.

I'm heartbroken, and am simply trying to live without him.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Animals of The Alaska Zoo: Mary Ellen, Kaltag, Venetie, and Tony

One of the first animals I met when I started working at the zoo back in 1999 was Mary Ellen, a lynx. She’d been hit by a car just off O’Malley Road – practically in front of the zoo’s entrance – and was being kept in the infirmary to mend her broken leg.

Truth be told, that had been way too many months earlier; she was simply not healing the way the vet wanted her to. They would clean her wound, bandage it up nice and tight, and put her out into her enclosure – and she would drag it around on the ground and get it all infected again. The poor girl had spent more time in the infirmary than out of it during the 9 months since she arrived at the zoo, and she was not a happy camper.

The curator of the zoo, Pat Lampi (who has since moved on to become the Director of the zoo), was the one who always had to dart Mary Ellen to get her out of her enclosure and into the infirmary. He was also the one who tended to her and gave her the shots required to sedate her for any treatment she received.

She hated him.

Any time he came into view she’d start growling. If he got closer, she’d hiss and back up. It was kind of sad, actually. Pat just wanted to help her – but she didn’t understand. All she knew was that whenever he came around, she got shot.

After a year of continually re-infecting the wound, the vet finally decided that amputation was called for. He had tried everything he could think of to save the leg, but it just wasn’t working. So, off it came. Barely a week later, and that cat was running around in her enclosure like a spring chicken again! Cats are agile and sure-footed creatures by nature, so getting along with only 3 legs was no challenge at all.

Or so we thought.

That fall, when things got slick with ice & snow – she fell and broke her one remaining hind leg! Back she went to the infirmary again. This time, the vet had to put her leg back together with a steel rod and pins – which I must say makes for some really cool X-rays. They’re still hanging up in the infirmary to show people that come to visit.

While she was recovering from that surgery, the maintenance staff put up some handicap ramps with no-slip mats in her enclosure, so she could get up to the high platforms (where a cat just needs to be) without risking another fall.

Quick: What do you call a group of more than one lynx? Answer: a chain
Get it? Lynx = links = chain…

Sorry, that’s such a bad joke. But I love it, still – and typically get a good chuckle from it when I tell it to a group of kids.

Anyway, five years later we got two kittens who had been orphaned in the wildfires that summer: two girls we named Kaltag and Venetie (pronounced Vee-na-tie, like to tie your shoe). Originally they were put in the enclosure with Mary Ellen, but we quickly realized they were too rambunctious for her. Not only is she handicapped but she also is fairly old for a lynx. We ended up moving Mary Ellen to a different enclosure on the other side of the zoo, what I like to call her retirement home, while the kittens got the larger enclosure.

Coming to us at such a young age means the kittens never really acquired the fear of humans that a wild animal normally has. Not that they’re tame, by any means. But – if he’s careful and sticks close to the gate for a quick exit if needed - their handler, Jim Rutkowski, can go in with them. He plays with them using their favorite toy: a long stick with a string on the end of it.

They get so excited, just like my own cat. A lynx is much larger than a house cat of course, even at the kitten stage, so Jim really has to stretch sometimes to get the toy up above them. And with those powerful hind legs, they can really jump & run – a skill that serves them well in the wild as they chase after their preferred animal of prey: the snowshoe hare.

We got another orphaned kitten just 2 years ago; this time a little boy we named Tony. Each new animal has to spend time in quarantine to ensure they don’t introduce any parasites or illnesses, so he lived in the retirement home with Mary Ellen for a while - separated from her by a temporary fence but still close enough that he wasn’t lonely – before moving in with the girls in the larger enclosure.

As we all know: boy-kooties are icky. The girls wanted nothing to do with him at first. But they are all young and playful, so soon enough they were romping around together. I honestly can’t even tell them apart now, but perhaps Jim can.

They did manage to get in to trouble a few years ago. Big trouble!

They have many trees in their enclosure which we have wrapped with chicken wire around the base to protect the cats from clawing them, and with 3 feet of metal sheeting up at the 8’ level to prevent the cats from climbing out. One of the girls found a tree whose metal sheeting had come loose, so she was able to climb up the tree really, really high. Only then did she remember that she had no idea how to get back down. That poor cat was stuck up there for over a week, while all the zookeepers tried to think of ways to get her down manually.

None of our ladders are long enough to reach, and even if they were nobody wanted to be up a tree with a wild cat. We couldn’t dart her, because then she’d fall and get injured. The proverbial “open can of tuna” didn’t work. We even thought of calling the fire department (“Help! My cat is stuck up a tree!”) but their ladder truck would not have fit on the trails.

Thankfully she found a way to get herself down eventually. We have since re-wrapped that particular tree, and keep a closer eye on all of them.

Check out the pictures from the Zoo’s Photographer:

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Animals of The Alaska Zoo: Molly & Kaz

Ask anybody who knows me and they’ll all agree: I am a cat person. So you can imagine my delight when The Alaska Zoo acquired two snow leopards back in 2002.

We had a lot of preparations to do before they arrived. We took an old exhibit that was no longer in use and remodeled it, creating an environment that would be comfortable for them. We filled out tons of forms and paperwork proving that we could take care of them properly. We even had to take classes on the care of snow leopards! It took us 3 years of hard work; but when we watched those magnificent animals step out of their crates and into their exhibit for the first time, that made it all worth while.

We got a breeding pair, meaning that we are a part of the Snow Leopard SSP (Species Survival Plan) working towards trying to save the species from extinction. Our female, a 4-year old named Molly, came to us from the Denver Zoo. The male, a 3-year old named Kaz, came to us from the John Ball Zoo in Michigan. Both had been born in captivity and were suitably compatible – at least, genetically.

Our original intent was to have the two of them live together in their exhibit. The reality of it didn’t quite work out according to our plans. Snow leopards are solitary by nature, and Molly tends to be a bit… shall we say, aggressive? She just really doesn’t enjoy having company, to put it mildly.

We ended up having to put a dividing fence down the middle of their enclosure. This allowed both cats to relax and know that the other could not intrude into their space, while at the same time giving them a chance to get to know each other without the use of claws and teeth. The zoo’s vet still has to make the occasional house call to patch up Kaz’s nose when he gets too close to the fence for Molly’s comfort level, however.

Their enclosure is really quite interesting. From the footprint, one would hardly think there’s enough room for one cat, let alone two. But when you look at vertical floor space, rather than horizontal, you realize there’s more to it than that.

A snow leopard’s natural habitat is the mountainous regions of the Himalayans, in the Tibet/Nepal area. They are perfectly adapted to the high altitudes and rugged terrain with their huge feet - which act like snowshoes, their long tail - used for balance, and their enlarged chest cavity - enabling them a greater air intake with each breath.

As mentioned earlier, snow leopards are solitary by nature, and are exceedingly hard to find. Scientists don’t really know for sure how many are left; best guess has the numbers anywhere from 1,000 to 7,000 – based solely on tracks and/or scat left behind. Those sound like really high numbers, but when you compare it to the nearly 7 BILLION humans on the planet, that gives you a bit more perspective. The snow leopard is considered to be extremely endangered.

Snow leopards are very well camouflaged so even if you do locate one, seeing it is a whole other story. We had a visiting scientist come up to give a talk at our summer lecture series that first year. One particular instance he spoke of has remained stuck in my memory banks: he said he had a cat with a radio collar located on his computer. The screen on his laptop told him the animal was walking passed him, not 10 feet away. He tried as hard as he could to visually locate the animal, but never saw it.

As part of our responsibility towards the species in general, we are attempting to breed our two cats. Molly comes into heat once a year, typically around Feb-March. At that time, she will allow Kaz into her personal space, and the two of them have successfully bred three times. Unfortunately, Molly was hand raised rather than reared by her mother. My assumption is that she didn’t get a chance to learn what being a mother is all about, so has no clue how to take care of any offspring she may produce. All three times, the cubs did not survive much longer than a day or two.

I believe we are attempting to breed them again this year, after consulting with experts all over the world and getting advice on how to help her. Hopefully, we will be able to intervene successfully and the cubs will survive. Keep your fingers (and toes) crossed for us!

Part of my duties as a volunteer in the education department is to give tours. One tour that really stands out was one that took me and my 4 guests into the snow leopard’s den! Smitty, the zookeeper in charge of the cats (both the snow leopards and the tigers & lynx) was there to tell us about the animal and answer any questions we might have. He also had little bits of meat cut up into bite-size chunks that we were able to feed to them – thru the fence, of course. It was truly a memorable occasion!

With Kaz, you could hold the meat with your fingers way up high thru the fence. Kaz would LEAP up to get the morsel, clinging to the fence with his claws. Smitty is a tall man, standing over 6 feet tall. He had his arm fully extended up, so the meat was probably at about the 7 foot range. Kaz wasted no time in leaping up there, gobbling down the tidbit, and eagerly waiting the next one.

With Molly, it was a different story. She held back towards the far side of her den, eyeing us with the same look on her face as she was eyeing the meat. You definitely got the impression that she saw no difference, and would be just as happy eating us as she would that tiny little bit of meat.

I have to confess, I was more than slightly afraid of her. I fed Kaz, but I wouldn’t feed Molly. Even having a fence between me and her was not enough to make me feel safe.

Check out the zoo photographer’s website for some amazing photographs of our beautiful cats:

Friday, March 13, 2009

A Mother and Her Twins

I'm sitting here at my desk at work in downtown Anchorage watching a mother moose and her two twins as they slowly amble down the road.

The twins are last years babies, so mother is most likely going to kick them out of the house really soon so that she can have this year's babies.

It's so cool to live in a city that still has wildlife in abundance just wondering thru.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

This is What Heaven is Made Of

I believe that heaven is a bakery and they always have fresh hot bread, just out of the oven. They slice it nice and thick, and slather lots of warm melting butter all over it. You sit cross-legged at the hearth by a nice big fire, with cats all around you, and savor the warmth as you eat your bread.

I figured this out the other day. One of the guys at work made a loaf of bread one morning and brought it to work to share. On the one hand, we hate him because he CAN get up in the morning and make bread – but on the other hand, we love him because he gets up in the morning and makes bread.

Anyway, as I was sitting there watching the sun rise up over the mountains, eating my big thick slice of warm fresh bread all slathered over with melting butter, I said “This is what heaven is made of.”

I’ve also discovered that bread is my main comfort food. When I’m sore & achy (and cranky & bitchy) I crave it. Nothing would make me happier than to be handed my big thick slice of warm fresh bread all slathered over with melting butter (okay, you get the point by now, I think).

I’ve been craving it a lot lately.

My physical therapy sessions are not going quite as well as I’d hoped they would. The doctor is happy with my progress, but I’m not. It hurts worse now than it did before I started!

I just have to keep telling myself: it took 30+ years to cause all this damage. It’s going to take more than just two sessions to fix it.

5 Minute Chocolate Mug Cake

For those special emergencies where only chocolate will do, this is a fast and easy fix!

5 Minute Chocolate Mug Cake

4 tablespoons flour
4 tablespoons sugar
2 tablespoons cocoa
1 egg
2 tablespoons mild
3 tablespoons oil
3 tablespoons chocolate chips (optional)
a small splash of vanilla extract
1 large coffee cup

1. add dry ingredients to mug and mix well
2. add the egg and mix thoroughly
3. pour in the milk and oil, mix well
4. add chocolate chips and vanilla extract, mix one more time
5. put mug into microwave and cook for 3 minutes at 1000 watts: the cake will rise over the top of the mug
6. allow to cool a little and tip out onto a plate if desired.
7. EAT!

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Physical Therapy Session: 1

My first physical therapy session went well enough, despite several potential setbacks.

First, I arrived at 10:00, just like my appointment card told me to, but due to a mix-up at the appointments desk I didn’t get in to Dr. Harpel’s office until 10:30. That meant that I didn’t get back to the office until 11:30 – which meant I missed 2 hours of work instead of just 1. I sincerely hope this is not a regular occurrence: I don’t have the time off to spare.

Plus, the x-rays and Dr’s report from my previous visit on Friday hadn’t been transcribed yet, so he did not have access to them – which meant he had no idea why I was there. Even without the x-rays he could tell that my neck was not right, so was able to do some work on me right away.

He did his exam, talked to me about what was going on, and gave me a few exercises to get started on. He explained that I needed to get the muscles around the neck and shoulder area strengthened up to support the spinal column and hopefully ease some of the tension causing the muscle spasms.

We made an appointment for Wednesday, by which time he was hopeful that he would have access to my files and would therefore be able to really start helping me. We’ll see…

One thing that impressed me greatly was that he remembered me from the last time I was there – which was back in 2006 right before I went to Costa Rica! That kind of memory really impresses me. I have a hard time remembering things that happened yesterday, let alone things from 4 years and who knows how many patients ago.

Animals of The Alaska Zoo: Zayk & Mavis

There are three species of bear in Alaska: the polar bear, the brown bear, and the black bear.

The black bear, scientifically known as Ursus americanus, is the smallest of the North American bears. It is also the most abundant and widely distributed of the three species, and has been recorded in all states except Hawaii.

Here at the zoo, we currently have two black bears in residence: Zayk & Mavis.

Zayk (pronounced: “Zeek”) came to us back in 1999 as an orphaned cub. His mother had been getting into the garbage dump down in Girdwood and had to be shot. This is an unfortunate occurrence that happens all too often. As the saying goes: “A fed bear is a dead bear.” It’s just too dangerous for both the bear and the humans living nearby.

Mavis arrived at the zoo in 1997. She had been picked up by some motorists near Turnagain Pass. I’m sure they thought they were “rescuing an orphaned cub” but in reality they probably kidnapped her. We don’t know this for sure, but more than likely her mother was right there just out of sight. Not only is it illegal to pick up a wild animal and keep it as a pet – as these people tried to do – but the average person simply doesn’t know what it takes to properly feed and care for a baby bear cub. By the time she was rescued from her good-intentioned kidnappers, she was severely malnourished and under-weight.

Despite the age difference in the two cubs (Zayk is younger by a whole year, which is a lot for a bear) they were placed together and ended up forming a bond that has lasted ever since. The two can be seen snuffling around their enclosure all summer long, getting fatter and fatter as the season progresses. And, in case you’re wondering, Zayk is fixed.

A lot of people assume that the difference between a black bear and a brown bear is the color. I mean, they are called a Black Bear and a Brown Bear, after all. But that is not a good way to tell them apart since there are brown Black Bears and there are black Brown Bears.

Other people think perhaps size is a good indication, but again that is not entirely correct. There are large Black Bears and there are small Brown Bears.

The best way to tell them apart is to look at their features. A Brown Bear, no matter what the color or size, will always have a prominent shoulder hump, less prominent ears and longer claws. A Black Bear will have a straighter facial profile, taller ears, and shorter claws. There is also a difference in the molars, but I sincerely hope you never get close enough to find out.

One question I get asked a lot is “What should I do if I encounter a bear out on the trails?”

If you’re out hiking and you see a bear - but the bear does not see you: slowly back away until he is no longer in sight and then leave the area. Nine times out of ten, that will be the end of your encounter.

If you see a bear and the bear sees you: Stop and talk to him. Let him know you’re a human. Nine times out of ten, the bear will leave and that will be the end of your encounter. I should mention, however, that you will than want to leave the area yourself, just to be sure.

If the bear starts walking towards you: Do Not Run! Start yelling at it, make lots of noise, and make yourself as big and scary as possible. Again, nine times out of ten the bear will run off and that will be the end of your encounter. Also again, leave the area – just to be sure.

Worst case scenario: if the bear should happen to make contact (which typically involves teeth, claws, and a lot of pain) you need to know what type of bear is attacking you.

If it’s a Brown Bear: play dead. The Brown Bear typically just wants to neutralize the danger. As soon as you’re “dead” the bear will leave. Theoretically.

If it’s a Black Bear: fight for your life. Punch it in the nose, poke it in the eye, do anything you can to hurt it and make it go away.

Your best bet for safety in the woods is to never encounter a bear in the first place. It is highly advised that you make noise when you’re hiking to give the bears advanced warning that you are on the trails. They will most likely leave before you even know they’re there. I either sing loudly to myself, or talk with my friends and laugh a lot.

Above all, use your head. If you smell a bear or see fresh scat (bear poop), leave the area. Do not, under any circumstance, get between a bear and its cubs. Use similar caution with a bear and its food source. And if you have a dog, keep it on a leash. Too often I’ve heard stories of a dog running ahead of it’s owner that got a bear all riled up and then led it right back to the hiker!

Once again, the zoo’s photographer has provided a link to his website so you can see pictures of Zayk and Mavis. Check it out:

Monday, March 09, 2009

Family Craft Day

Sunday was a big day for the family. We all met at Mother’s farm for our Family Craft Day! It was fun: Mother had a bunch of tables set up downstairs for everybody to sit at, while upstairs was all laid out with the food that people brought.

Mother had made kraut burgers (a family favorite). Stewart & Julie brought a pasta salad. Kelly, Gareth & Tara brought fresh veggies & dip. I brought cheese & crackers and grapes. Corissa brought peanut butter rice crispy crackers. Noel and Heather both came, but I didn’t get to see what they brought.

Corissa and I sat together at one small table. The both of us worked on making cards, so we had our papers, scissors, X-Acto knives, and gluetape strewn about. I got a lot done: 1 Valentine’s Day card, 1 baby card, and two birthday cards. Corissa ended up with a pile of maybe 8 little note cards that she can use for all manner of correspondences.

We chatted with Noel, who sat beside us working on her crochet project. She was making these tiny little flowers that – she said – would end up being a skirt. As Gareth said, “That’s a pretty small skirt!”

Julie sat on our other side working on her beading projects. She has set a goal for herself of having a booth at one of the craft shows in November, so needs to have plenty of items worthy of being put on sale. She also does a lot of crocheting, so will have some of those items as well I’m sure.

In the room right next to us, Mother sat in a corner with a piece of raw Diamond Willow. She was pealing it with a knife, which I have to admit made me a little nervous. She doesn’t have the greatest reputation with knives.

Kelly was set up on the sewing table beside Mother. She had bought herself a brand new sewing machine which she brought with her but ended up not using. I’m assuming she was working on a baby blanket because she spent the entire 4 hours cutting out 6” squares.

On the other end of the sewing table, Tara actually used her sewing machine. She is creating another “TaraBag” out of felts, canvas, and brocade materials all with a natural green theme. I love her creations: she does really good work.

Heather and her friend Adrianna (I apologize if I got that wrong: I don’t have the best memory for names) tucked themselves into the corner of that room on a little table. Heather was teaching Adrianna how to make earrings out of some really pretty glass beads that she had in her collection.

The men in the group spent most of the time upstairs at the front table, overlooking the tree with all the bird feeders. I’m sure they were busy talking amongst themselves; but if they looked out the window they would have seen all kinds of chickadees, grosbeaks, waxwings, and what not happily flitting around the suet and birdseed.

Walking the Trail

As part of my weight loss goal, I have pledged to myself that I will walk the coastal trail each Saturday morning. I used to do this all the time, way back when, and really enjoyed being out and about early in the morning. I’m hoping to get back in to the habit, despite the “black hole” which is my bed. It sucks me in and won’t let me leave unless I make super-human efforts each morning.

Having three cats sleeping on top of me doesn’t help, either. Not only are they heavy and near impossible to wake up, but they’re just so darned CUTE when they sleep.

But, I now have a friend who is more than willing to walk with me. I’m positive that will make it even easier to get up each morning.

Our first walk together was this Saturday. I drove downtown at 6:30 in the morning and met her at the Muffin Man café (she lives in the apartments above it) and we took of on foot to her favorite trail head. She likes to start from 3rd & H Street and make her way down the coast towards Westchester Lagoon.

Depending on our mood, we either turn aside at the lagoon and head in to town or continue on up the trail to Fish Creek where we can watch the ducks. This particular day, we turned aside and made our way to the New Sagaya City Market where she had some shopping to do.

I must admit, I was glad for the break. It was a nice day out, but it was still quite cold. Stopping at the mid-point of our walk helped to thaw me out, making the walk home pleasurable rather than painful.

Shopping at the market meant that when we got back to her apartment she was able to make us some multi-grain pancakes with fruit/berry compote on top! Another reason that getting up will be easier on Saturday mornings – I get fed really good food.

The cherry on top of our morning was getting to watch the dogs. Saturday was the official start of the Iditarod Sled Dog Race, and Elizabeth had timed our walk so that we could go watch the dogs while the oats were soaking for our pancakes.

It’s obvious that those people who protest this race, saying that it’s cruel to the dogs, have never actually been to the race. If they had, they’d see that these dogs are beyond excited. They LOVE to run, and it take three or four full-grown men to hold them back when they’re in the harness and heading up to the starting line.

Their excitement is infectious: all the dogs are barking and howling, all the people are laughing and smiling. It’s a very exciting time for everybody involved.

Friday, March 06, 2009

Such a Deal

I did some grocery shopping at Fred Meyer’s today, while I was out and about. I had picked up some really tasty organic veggie patties at Costco, so wanted to find some whole-wheat buns to eat with them.

So I’m standing in the bread isle looking at the rows of items offered that day, and see that there is a sale. I can get two packages of four buns for only $5.00

I had to laugh, however. Sitting right beside the buns that were on sale were some packages of 8 of the very same buns for only $4.00

I wonder how many people bought up the smaller packages, thinking they got such a great deal?

A Disturbing Development

I just got back from the doctor. I had made the appointment to get some cream for my rash, but since I was there anyway I also talked to him about my headaches and my weight loss goals.

About the rash: its eczema. I get it about once every year or so. The topical cream clears it right up, so that is certainly the least of my worries.

About the weight loss goal: he recommends Weight Watchers. I'll have to talk to my friend Heater who is in the program right now. Perhaps she won't mind some company? I want to loose about 50 pounds by November. That's a pretty aggressive goal, but you have to set your sights high in order to get anywhere in life, don't you?

About my headaches: they've really been bothering me lately, causing considerable nausea and exhaustion. This was a new doctor, one I hadn’t seen before. So of course I had to tell the entire story again: when they started, how often I get them, what I’ve done for them, all the doctor’s I’ve seen, all the drugs I’ve taken. He asked a lot of questions and decided to have xrays taken of my neck. They have the xray machine right there in the office, so it wasn’t 15 minutes later I was back in his office discussing the results.

He said, and I quote, “I’m shocked at the amount of degeneration in your discs!” Then he started talking about MRIs and the distinct possibility of having to undergo surgery.

Not exactly good news… but at least its something different. Every other doctor I’ve been to has been absolutely positive they could “cure” me of my migraines – and every one of them failed. This guy doesn’t really even think I have migraines. He says that damage to my neck – most likely from the head injury I had as a child – has been steadily getting worse as I get older, and could be putting pressure on my spinal chord which in turn causes the pain and nausea I’m feeling.

For now, he wants me to try physical therapy three times a week for about 4 weeks. If that doesn’t have any effect on my pain levels, then he suggests having the MRI to see just how extensive the damage really is. From there, we can figure out what to do next. Last resort would be surgery, although at this point in time I don’t even know what exactly that would mean.

Of course, my biggest concern (aside from the terror of going under the knife) is that I may not be able to go to Africa after all.

Wednesday, March 04, 2009

Animals of The Alaska Zoo: Mekoryuk & Maxine

One question that I get a lot at the zoo is “What is your favorite animal?” I never know how to answer that; there are just so many animals that are all so amazing and wonderful in their own right. But there is one animal at the zoo that attracts my attention most often: the musk ox.

The musk ox is a prehistoric animal that walked side by side with the wooly mammoth. There is nothing else like them left on the planet. When you compare them to their fossil remains, you’ll find they have not changed at all. To me, that is just fascinating.

By their name one might think they were related to oxen; in reality they have more in common with sheep and goats. One might also think they had a musk gland similar to a wolverine or fox; they don’t. In fact, one has to wonder how they got their name at all. Perhaps the person who first named them thought they were just a big smelly cow.

The first thing you see when you look at a musk ox is all that hair. They have a coarse outer coat, long and scraggly, that hangs down to the ground and provides a windbreak. Underneath that they have their inner coat – what I call their underwear and what the natives call qiviut (pronounced: Kee-vee-oot). This qiviut is amazing stuff: it is the warmest, softest hair I’ve ever felt, and is considered to be the rarest fiber on earth.

The second thing you see is their horns. Both males and females have them, but the horns on the males are larger and heavier. The base of their horns span the entire forehead, creating a “boss” – what I call their plate armor – that can be up to 4” thick. Their skull underneath the boss is up to 3” thick, giving them as much as 7” of protection.

They need this protection because their favorite pastime is head-butting! They will head-butt pretty much any one or any thing at any time. In the wild, this is their main defense against predators. In the face of danger, the herd will gather together and stand shoulder to shoulder with their heads facing outwards and with the younger ones behind them. No wolf or polar bear can hope to compete against that.

Males also use their boss as a way of determining who gets to mate with the ladies. They charge each other at top speeds from distances of up to 50 yards or more and collide squarely on the horn bosses. They do this over and over till only one is left standing. This ensures that only the only strongest males procreate, enhancing the breed’s ability to withstand the harsh conditions in which they live.

Oddly enough, the males have a much shorter lifespan than the females do.

If you’re lucky, the third thing you’ll notice about the musk ox is their voice. I swear on a stack of bible they sound just like a lion! I have had many zoo patrons ask me where the lions were kept, swearing that they heard the roar. Musk oxen aren’t the most talkative of animals, so you don’t get to hear them very often. But when they do decide to voice their opinion, it’s actually quite funny to see. They open their mouth and stick out their tongue and let out a surprisingly loud roar.

Their habit of standing shoulder to shoulder certainly protects them from their natural predators, but it does nothing against human hunter. In fact, it’s like shooting ducks in a bucket. One riffle can decimate an entire herd in minutes, and that’s exactly what happened back in the late 1800s. The entire Alaskan species was wiped out and is now extinct.

Thankfully, back around 1935 or so, somebody had the great idea of restocking Alaska. They brought in animals from both Greenland and Canada and reestablished a herd on Nunivak Island. Today, the musk ox can be seen in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, Cape Thompson, the Seward Peninsula, Nelson Island, and Wrangel Island.

We have two musk oxen at The Alaska Zoo: Mekoryuk and Maxine. Both are of Greenland stock, being the shorter, stockier of the two bloodlines. Maxine was born 14 years ago at our very own zoo; Mekoryuk was born 6 years ago at the University of Alaska up in Fairbanks.

Maxine has had several babies, both by Mekoryuk and by Yukon – a Canadian musk ox who unfortunately passed away very unexpectedly a few years ago. The babies were all raised by their mother until they were about 2 years old. They were then were relocated to other zoos since we do not have room for more than two here in The Alaska Zoo. If you find yourself in the Tacoma/Seattle area, you can see one of her offspring at the Point Defiance Zoo!

They are unfortunately housed in a smallish enclosure, so we have gotten rather creative in trying to stimulate them and provide them with things to do. The Municipality of Anchorage donates to us their used brushes from the street sweepers – which make really good scratching posts. Musk oxen are the itchiest animals I’ve ever met, constantly scratching on any available surface. We propped up several of the brushes all around their enclosure, and they certainly get used.

Another form of amusement for them is their tire post. This is a metal pipe, about 10” in diameter and roughly 12 feet tall. Its buried 10’ under ground (making the total height more like 22 feet) and is encased in 3 feet of concrete. We placed a dozen used tires on the post, creating the perfect head-butting “tree” for them. A male musk ox can hit with the force equivalent to a car going about 20 miles an hour hitting a brick wall – so we needed to make it able to withstand the abuse. We did a pretty good job at it: it’s still standing, albeit at a slight angle now.

As a special treat, the official zoo photographer has provided a link to his website so you can see pictures of Maxine and Mekoryuk!

Check it out:

Tuesday, March 03, 2009

Animals of The Alaska Zoo: Korol & Kunali

“To provide homes for arctic and sub-arctic wildlife in a natural setting for the recreational enjoyment and educational enrichment of Alaskan residents and visitors to our state.”

That is the mission statement for The Alaska Zoo, and in keeping with that goal a majority of the animals we have at the zoo are local natives. We do, however, have a few “exotics” in residence: two of which I want to talk about today.

Korol & Kunali are our two Amur tigers, more commonly known as Siberian tigers.

That erroneous term came about back in the early 1900s. People back then thought of Siberia as being the most remote destination on the map – similar to Timbuktu in Africa. By calling them Siberian Tigers, they gave them the most exotic name they could think of. Scientists are now working to reinstate “Amur tiger” their official name.

The Amur tiger is one of the most endangered animals on the planet with barely 350 individuals left in the wild. There are about that same number of Amur tigers in captivity, but that still puts the population at under 1,000. Zoos all over the world have gotten together and formed a Species Survival Program (SSP) for them, keeping track of the genetic matches made within the captive pool and mating specific tigers to optimize the dwindling numbers in order to try and save the species.

Korol & Kunali are brothers, born in the same litter five years ago in the Rosemont Gifford Zoo of New York. Their family line is over-represented within the gene pool, so they are considered surplus at the moment. They could, at any time, be put back in the pool however – should that ever be deemed necessary, and as long as they are still young enough to breed successfully.

Their trip up to Alaska was facilitated by Fed-Ex, transporting them in two separate crates built specially for them. Apparently, traveling is not a favored pastime for Amur tigers: when the boys arrived, they were extremely annoyed. They did not enjoy the flight, and were not happy at all about being relocated.

The zoo arranged a welcoming party for them a few days after their arrival. The public was invited to come see them released into their enclosure for the first time, after they had presumably recovered from their flight. We had hundreds of people up on the boardwalk, anxiously awaiting their appearance, with a photographer down on the ground under the boardwalk (but still protected by the fence) to get the best shot.

When they opened the door to the “cave” where the boys have their dens, the tigers were right there at the door. The first tiger took a few tentative steps outside, looking around and sniffing at the air. He then turned to the right of the path to inspect the rocks, leaving the doorway to his brother.

His brother caught sight of the photographer not 20 feet in front of him – and with a blood-curdling roar, he attacked! This was a full-on attack of a top predator that was royally pissed off. 600+ pounds of teeth and claws hit the fence within mere seconds - I have never seen anything like that before or since. It was truly spectacular.

That poor photographer! He got some incredible shots, no doubt; but I’m sure he had to go home and wash his shorts right away. All the people up on the boardwalk were gasping, saying things like “Oh my God!” and “Did you see those claws!”

It took a good month or so for the boys to calm down and get comfortable, but finally they are at home. The enclosure we provide for them is a nice big wooded lot, roughly one third of an acre, with plenty of grasses, trees, rocks, and a cave to hide in. Since the Amur tiger actually loves water, we even provided a swimming pool for them. Unfortunately due to the zoo’s location, the availability of water is not conducive to keeping a tiger’s swimming pool full of clean water on a daily basis – so they don’t get to use it as often as they might wish to.

Monday, March 02, 2009

Animals of the Alaska Zoo: Jake & Oreo

As you found out in my first installment of “Animals of The Alaska Zoo”, eleven years ago we had a brown bear cub living together with a polar bear cub. This posting is to tell you about her.

She had only been with us only a few days when a troupe of girl scouts came to visit. As you may know, a baby brown bear typically has a “ring” of white fur around their necks which they eventually grow out of as adults. Well, one of the scouts pointed out that she looked like an Oreo cookie because of the ring – so we named her Oreo.

Oreo and Ahpun got along together quite well for a good five years before puberty hit. Those of you who have teenagers know that it’s usually not a good idea to have two teenage girls living together in the same room – invariably the arguments break out and peace & quiet are a thing of the past.

It was rather unexpected – to me, at least – that Oreo was the more dominate one. I always assumed a polar bear would be more aggressive than a brown bear. But when you take in to account their hunting methods, it makes more sense. A polar bear is more of a “hide and seek” type of hunter whereas the brown bear is more of a “chase and attack” type of hunter.

What was happening between our girls was that Oreo started bossing Ahpun around, not letting her eat or go in the pool. Our vet had a few too many house calls to patch up scratches and bites, so we started working on getting the two of them separated.

Jake is our huge Kodiak bear, weighing in at well over 1,000 pounds. We don’t actually know for sure, because it’s been quite some time since we were able to weigh him accurately. We know that the Kodiak bear could weigh as much as 1,500 pounds: he’s big but not quite that big.

He came to us back in 1982 along with his sister, Jackie. They were both orphaned, so needed a home. Unfortunately, Jackie died about 10 years later leaving Jake all by himself, so we thought he might enjoy some company. We built an addition to his enclosure to house Oreo while the two of them got acquainted with each other, thru the bars where no claws or teeth could be involved.

Having a cute girl living next door was enough to keep Jake awake throughout that winter. In the wild, bears hibernate during wintertime because of a lack of food. In captivity food is available all year round – so we let the bears tell us if they want to hibernate or not, depending on their own personality. Jake has always hibernated, but Oreo never had.

Come spring time, the powers that be at the zoo decided it was time to see how the two would get along without bars separating them. They waited till after hours so there wouldn’t be any crowds to distract the bears, and had all the zookeepers on hand with water hoses, noise makers, and dart guns incase a fight broke out.

Then, with everybody’s breath held in nervous anticipation, the gate was opened. Jake immediately walked into Oreo’s pen – and mounted her. They’ve been going at it ever since.

In case you’re wondering, there are three types of brown bear in Alaska: the Brown Bear -found in coastal areas (these are the ones that steal your fish from you), the Grizzly Bear - found in the interior of Alaska (like in Denali National Park), and the Kodiak Bear – found, amazingly enough, on Kodiak Island (these are the biggest of the brown bears). Scientifically, brown bears and grizzly bears are the same species, with the Kodiak bear being listed as a sub-species. Oreo is a brown bear and Jake is a Kodiak bear.

Jake and Oreo have been living together for many years now, and have gotten well used to each other. Jake even taught Oreo how to hibernate, so now they sleep the winters away.

He has also taught her to dig – that is why a brown bear has such long claws, after all. Unfortunately for us, she has really taken to this whole digging thing.

They used to have a nice wooded hill towards the back of their enclosure, but Oreo has dug at it to the point where it is now almost completely eroded away and all of the trees have died. We are trying to figure out what to do about that – but anything we put in there would just be demolished by her enthusiastic-ness.