Here's an article that originally appeared in Elmendorf Air Force Base and Fort Richardson Army Bases' Arctic Warrior newspaper on April 23, 2010. My friend Mary Chambers and I did a series of outreaches for the children of Ursa Minor Elementary School, and the most unflattering photographs ever were taken of both of us. :)
Alaska Zoo staff brings animals to local school, teach students
Story and photos by David Bedard
Fort Richardson PAO
Daisy, a prickly North American porcupine scratched frantically at the floor of her crate until Mary Chambers, Alaska Zoo camp coordinator, fed the large rodent a bit of bread during an April 19 exhibition for Ursa Minor Elementary School students.
An animal best avoided in the wild, the gregarious Daisy served as part of a weeklong Alaska Zoo exhibition for several classrooms at the school and was followed later in the week by great horned owl Peabody and an exhibition of numerous animal artifacts.
Lisa Chickos, Alaska Zoo Outreach Coordinator, said the exhibitions help to bring knowledge of the zoo's animals to Southcentral Alaska classrooms.
“We have a pretty thorough outreach program, the goal of course is to be able to inspire students and introduce them to the zoo if they can't get there themselves,” she said. “So we can have a traveling set of exhibits where we will take animals or artifacts out and into the classroom.”
Ms. Chambers served as handler during Daisy's visit to the school, explaining how porcupines survive in the wild and dispelling many of the myths surrounding the thorny mammal.
Perhaps just as remarkable as being a porcupine is Daisy's story of how she came into possession of the zoo.
Ms. Chambers said the rodent's mother was killed when she was run over by a car before Daisy was even born. A boy unwittingly came to the rescue when his parents drove upon the tragic scene.
“This 12-year-old boy in the car wanted to be a veterinarian,” Ms. Chambers explained. “So he was really curious and was starting to learn all about animals.
“His parents suggested that he carry around a dissection kit,” she continued. “He saw this porcupine laying in the road that had already passed away so he decided to dissect her and, weird as it is, he cuts open the porcupine and inside they find a baby porcupine and it's still alive. They pulled her out and she survived.”
Although the family initially decided to keep Daisy as a pet, the musky rodent who likes to chew on everything eventually proved too much to handle.
“Do you think it's going to be a good idea to keep this animal as a pet?” Ms. Chambers asked with emphatic no responses from the wide-eyed children. “Yeah, it's kind of tricky and they smell really bad.”
The family then called the zoo and resigned the animal to their expert care.
Ms. Chambers said Daisy has been trained like all exhibition animals to behave well when brought outside of the zoo's auspices.
“She came to us so young that we were able to train her to do stuff like this, to go in a crate,” Ms. Chambers explained. “Believe it or not, when I go into her enclosure, she actually comes flying down – porcupine flying, so really not that fast – from her den and she will come right to the crate and walk right in.”
During a subsequent exhibition, students were treated to a visit from Peabody, a great horned owl who was brought to the zoo after the injured raptor was rehabilitated by the Bird Treatment and Learning Center.
Both Ms. Chambers and Ms. Chickos returned to the school April 22 with artifacts of animals which can be seen at the zoo.
During the exhibition, Ms. Chambers explained there are three ways animals are brought into the zoo.
“Do you guys think we just take the animals out of the wild and put them in cages because they're cute?” she asked rhetorically. “They're very cute but we would never do that because we would prefer they are raised in the wild.”
The first reason Ms. Chambers cited is because an animal like Peabody is found injured.
“An animal might break its leg or its wing or it might injure an eye,” she detailed. “They might have an injury that prevents them from surviving on their own in the wild so they have to come to the zoo in order for us to take care of them.”
The second reason is because an animal like Daisy is found orphaned.
“If an animal loses its mom or its dad than he's going to miss out on all of the cool lessons that he needs to learn from his mom on how to find food and how to defend himself against predators,” Ms. Chambers related. “So if an animal is orphaned in the wild, they can come to the zoo and we can take care of it.”
The third reason is because an animal belongs to an endangered species like snow leopard breeding pair Molly and Kaz.
Ms. Chambers said the artifacts are either naturally shed from zoo animals or are donated by authorities who have seized the remains of illegally hunted animals.
The artifacts are used to demonstrate the unique characteristics of the zoo's animals.
“At the Alaska Zoo, we have 120 different animals and these animals are all arctic animals,” Ms. Chambers elaborated. “We live close to the arctic and it gets really cold here so all of our animals have these really cool adaptations to be able to survive in really cold weather.”
Ms. Chambers and Ms. Chickos reached into their totes to produce porcupine quills, a Dall sheep horn, a caribou antler, a polar bear claw and a black bear pelt among other artifacts to illustrate animal adaptations.
Ms. Chickos said she always enjoys an opportunity to represent the Alaska Zoo through community outreach.
“It's a nice perk,” she said with a smile. “It's fun. I think we both really enjoy it because it gives us a chance to get out into the community, travel around, talk to students and have a real up close learning experience with them.
“We find you can talk about abstract concepts like environmental awareness and conservation all day long but it's really when you have a live animal or some sort of artifact from the animal that students can see and smell and touch,” Ms. Chickos continued. “That's really when they start to get inspired and really start to care about it so it's nice for us to make that connection, whether at the zoo or in their classroom.”