After moving to Alaska in 1993, one of the first places my parents took me was Big Game Alaska. It was a fairly new wildlife-rescue organization nearby Portage Glacier, and I was excited to see Alaskan animals up close for the first time. The grounds were sort of ratty, with few animals and only a handful of visitors. We were handed a bag of food pellets upon arrival and encouraged to feed the moose, caribou, and elk.
Big Game Alaska rescued animals–abandoned babies, injured adults–and rehabilitated them on site. The goal was to return animals to the wild, but if he or she couldn’t be released, the animal would have a permanent home on site. It was a strange place: situated at the end of the Turnagain Arm, there were endless acres on which animals could roam, thin fences separating the human side from the animals’, and no real supervision. We wandered around, doling out our bag of treats to animals who mostly ignored us. The only animals we were told not to get close to were the musk ox, which wasn’t a problem: they ignored us, too.
A small gift center lay at the center of the premises. Inside they sold typical Alaskan jewelery and goods, as well as moose and caribou jerky. Even as a child, I found that odd, selling the meat of animals I had just petted.
The meager staff got to know my family well as we made frequent pilgrimages to the site. They encouraged us to bring bananas for the moose. Over the years the bags of food were phased out, but we were still allowed our bananas.
A friend and I happened to be there when two orphaned moose calves arrived. Nick, named after the Knik Arm in which he was found, was the sicker of the two, a scrawny little baby with a severe respiratory infection. He ended up dying a few days later. It broke my heart, but I’m glad he was safe and warm and loved at the end.
The other calf was Matty, named after the Matanuska-Susitna (Mat-Su) Valley where she was found. Her mother had been illegally killed by hunters, and she was doomed to die herself if not for some other compassionate people who noticed her plight. As Matty was the healthier of the two, my friend and I were allowed to bottle feed her.
I regularly checked in with her over the next few weeks and months. She always remembered me, and even years later as a full-grown, one-thousand-pound adult, she would get up and run over to me when she heard my voice. Moose live about 15-20 years, so I don’t know if she’s still there, but I hope so. I think about her all the time, my first non-companion-animal love.
Big Game Alaska appears to have dramatically transformed since my time there. It is now The Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center, dedicated to conservation, rehabilitation, and education. You can no longer feed or pet the animals at all (probably a good thing in retrospect), and they have branched out to include bears and other species not on the roster during my years.
It was and looks to still be a wonderful alternative to the horribly depressing Alaska Zoo in Anchorage, with natural habitats catered to the animals rather than the people, animals in their real homes rather than in artificial enclosures. Plus, it’s a few dollars cheaper, too.
If you ever go, make sure to ask if Matty is still there. If she is, sneak her a banana for me.