Critter Collection: Where to see Alaska animals in the winter

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Dani Biersteker, education director for the Musk Ox Farm, suggests sticking cameras through the fences to take up-close pictures of the muskoxen while on a tour. Photos: Caleigh Jensen.

SPECIAL CORRESPONDENT Caleigh Jensen went to a Polar Bear birthday party, gave some treats to the reindeer and got up-close-and-personal with musk oxen. Here is her report. –Scott

Alaska is practically famous for its wildlife — moose, bears, deer, anything with four legs and fur really — but it’s not a guarantee you’ll see them in the wild, especially in the colder winter months. Luckily, a multitude of facilities around Anchorage offer surefire sightings of the species the state is known for. Here are a few places you’re bound to see Alaska critters this winter.

The Alaska Zoo

“Cranbeary” was born at the Denver Zoo and has called Alaska home for two years. She celebrated her 17th birthday by eating frozen juice and seal cookies.

The Alaska Zoo is a must-visit.  

Currently, the zoo is home to around 100 animals of 44 different species, including Bactrian camels, snow leopards, Amor tigers, Tibetan yaks, polar bears, otters, seals and an assortment of birds.

Patrick Lampi, executive director of the Zoo, offers some tips.

“Go toward the polar bears first, because if they’re out, great, but then even if they aren’t out when you first come in, you’re coming by there again when you’re leaving so there’s a second opportunity to see them,” he said. “I still find them swimming fascinating after watching them for over 30 years.”

Many of the animals at the zoo are the most active in the morning. Allow two and a half hours for your visit.

“To animals, fast movement and loud noises mean danger. If they hear that, they’re going to run away from that noise,” Lampi said. “If you just move quietly and are very observant, you’re more likely to see more interesting behavior in the animals.”

The Alaska Zoo’s resident alpaca sports a logo sweater when it’s cold!

Don’t miss “Zoo Lights” in the winter. It’s a unique display of lights and light fixtures strung throughout the trails and exhibits. Attendees can wander the dazzling, lit-up zoo from 6:30-8:30 p.m. Thursday-Sunday until March 1.  

The Alaska Zoo is open 10 a.m.-4 p.m. daily in February.  Tickets range from free (kids 2 and under) to $15 for non-residents. There’s a 2-for-1 coupon for admission in the Alaska TourSaver book.

While visitors are not permitted to touch the muskoxen, tour guides at the farm connect visitors to the animals through stories and descriptions of their personality traits.

Musk Ox Farm

Visit the Musk Ox Farm in Palmer. Founded in 1954, the farm spans over 75 acres and is home to 81 muskoxen. They’re expecting a few calves in the spring. 

Take the 45-minute guided tour, limited to 15 people. You’re accompanied by a guide full of knowledge about both the biology and personalities of each animal. 

While viewers are not permitted to touch the muskoxen, the tour guides connect the group to the herd in other ways.

“Everyone always thinks you have to connect to other species with a cuddle, but it can be done through a story,” Dani Biersteker, education director for the Musk Ox Farm, said. “We also bring touchy things, like pieces of horn or hoove, so visitors can tactically feel them.” 

The best tours often occur on extremely windy days, as the muskoxen are “jumping, spinning, chasing and playing,” said Mark Austin, executive director of the Musk Ox Farm.

“I always tell people to visit us on the most miserable day of their vacation, that’s probably the best day to see a muskox actively move,” Biersteker said. “They just look so much more majestic when the wind blows.” 

Austin encourages visitors to not be afraid to call ahead to check the weather conditions, and prepare themselves for cold temperatures, slick trails and wind, as well as more than just viewing the muskoxen.

“When a person comes to the farm, it’s not just to get a photo of a large, Alaska mammal. It’s to walk away with a warm sense of what they’re gained in the process and what they’ve learned about the project, the animals and the whole big picture,” Austin said.

Winter hours: Wednesday-Saturday, noon-4 p.m., with tours at 12:30 p.m. and 2 p.m. Admission: $11 for adults and $5 for children. CLICK HERE for more info on the Musk Ox Farm.

“Moose” the reindeer begs for more treats.

Reindeer Farm

While you’re in Palmer, don’t forget the Reindeer Farm

In the shadow of Pioneer Peak, the Reindeer Farm was founded by Tom and Gene Williams in 1987.

The farm is home to around 100 reindeer, along with a bison, a moose, two yaks, three elks, bunnies, a pig, a dog, horses and a “very friendly kitten,” tour guide Eric Waite said.

The Reindeer Farm is currently home to around 100 reindeer, with about 30-40 babies usually born in the springtime. 

Tours last 45-90 minutes so everyone can ask questions and get up-close with the animals.

First, learn about the farm’s history and the animals’ stories. Then head out to a pen to get up close and personal with the reindeer, feeding them out of your hands and petting and taking selfies with them.

“It’s a lot more of a hands-on experience than people are expecting. You get to walk with the reindeer and you’re on the ground feeding them. It’s very different than looking at the animals,” Waite said. “Reindeer are so calm that you just walk up to them and they walk up to you and it’s just fun.”

Reindeer love the cold of winter, whether it’s -20 degrees outside or fresh snow, they’re “built for it, and running and playing in the snow,” Waite said. However, humans aren’t quite as fond of the harsh weather, so to get the most of the experience, Waite suggests dressing appropriately.

“No matter how magical the reindeer are, if you’re cold, it’s not fun. So dress warmer than you think you need to and bring extra layers,” he said.

And of course, come prepared for a life-changing experience spending time with some of Alaska’s most popular animals.

The Reindeer Farm is open for 11 a.m. tours most Mondays, Wednesdays, Fridays and Saturdays from September-April. Tours cost $9-$11 (waiver required). Kids under 2 are free. CLICK HERE for more information on the Reindeer Farm.

MORE OPTIONS:

Alaska SeaLife Center in Seward. Hours: open daily 10 a.m.-5 p.m. from Feb. 24-May 21

Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center in Portage (about 11 miles past Girdwood on the Seward Highway). Hours: 10 a.m.-4 p.m. daily in February, 10 a.m.-5 p.m. in March .

 Caleigh and “Cranbeary” take a selfie at the Alaska Zoo on her 17th birthday on Jan. 18.

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