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Maine Wildlife Park Set to Welcome Visitors for 82nd Year
04/01/2013   Reported By: Susan Sharon

As retreating snowbanks give way to crocuses and other early signs of spring, bears, box turtles, raccoons and woodchucks at the Maine Wildlife Park in Gray are waking up from their long winter naps. In less than two weeks, weather permitting, the state-run park will open for its 82nd season, with 100,000 visitors expected to pass through its gates. And, as Susan Sharon reports, after once facing closure, the park has undergone a transformation over the past two decades.

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Maine Wildlife Park Set to Welcome Visitors for 82 Listen
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Wildlife park 1

The first thing you need to know about the Maine Wildlife Park is that it is not a zoo. You won't find Richard Parker, the Bengel tiger from the Life of Pi, hiding in these woods. All of the animals here are creatures that are native to Maine: moose, bobcat, lynx - even the elusive mountain lion - along with Barred Owls (right), opossum and more than 20 other furry or feathered wildlife species - about 80 animals altogether.

"We don't have any exotics and we don't do wildlife rehabilitation," says Curtis Johnson, the supervisor of the Maine Wildlife Park, which is overseen by the Wildlife park 6Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife. Johnson says a few of the animals arrive as confiscated illegal pets. But most have been injured or abandoned and then become so dependent on humans they can't survive in the wild.

"We get animals all the time that are injured - from the public, from biologists, the Maine Warden Service - and if they're candidates for rehabilitation they might just stay here a few hours or a few days before they're sent to a wildlife rehab," he says.

Instead, the mission of this park is wildlife education - emphasis on the word "wild." That means that even though the animals are contained in separate outdoor enclosures and have a lot of human interaction, their caretakers try to avoid humanizing them or making them seem like pets by giving them names that are shared with the public.

There is, however, one large exception.

Steven Oliveri, the assistant superintendent of the Maine Wildlife Park feeds Annie the moose."You gonna sing, Annie? Huh? - Well, she chews loud enough," says Assistant Park Superintendent Steve Oliveri (right, feeding Annie).

Annie is one of two moose who are the rock stars of the Maine Wildlife Park, the creatures that visitors from Maine and beyond most often want to see. On a recent winter morning, Oliveri is hand-feeding her a snack - a chunky zucchini.

"Of course, every animal has its own diet," he says. "The moose actually eat the most food of any animals that we have. They're the biggest and because they're herbivores they eat even more so for their body size than a large carnivore. Like, the bears eat a lot too, but not nearly as much as the moose."

Much of the produce and other food fed to the animals is donated by large retail stores. And that's not the only way the park gets by. One of the big reasons for its success are volunteers. More than 150 people contribute about 40 percent of the annual labor.

Wildlife park 8Curtis Johnson says they do everything from conducting guided tours and transporting wildlife, to maintaining trails, putting up exhibits and working in the snack bar. Some of the volunteers include prisoners from the Windham Correctional Facility, like this man, who asked not to be identified.

"Generally, we run from about 8:30 to 2:15 Monday through Friday, depending on the weather," he says. "We just finished up pulling out some old fence posts so that we could in new fences for the moose pen. We built some doors for the tractor barn. It's great to have something to do, you know. It really passes the time throughout the day"

During its history, the 240-acre Wildlife Park has had different names and missions. In the 1930's it was a pheasant farm that raised as many as 40,000 birds a year for hunters.

But its most challenging transformation occurred in 1992 after its very future seemed in doubt. That's when the Maine Legislature ordered the park to become self sufficient. It would receive no more tax dollars from the general fund, but from private donations and revenues generated at the gate.

Wildlife park 4Some worried that it might go under. But instead, foot traffic has steadily risen over the years. "So now the park has operated out of a dedicated account," Johnson says. "All of our gatehouse revenues, and revenues generated in the park, go into this dedicated account, and all of our operating expenses come out of it."

In other words, the Maine Wildlife Park is entirely self sufficient, something Johnson says is also noteworthy given that the park is closed between November and April each year.

Photos by Susan Sharon.



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