Houlton native takes on role as Maine’s zookeeper

Curt Johnson, superintendent of the Maine Wildlife Park in Gray, feeds a moose on Thursday.
Jose Leiva/Sun Journal
Curt Johnson, superintendent of the Maine Wildlife Park in Gray, feeds a moose on Thursday.
Posted Aug. 15, 2011, at 5:32 a.m.

GRAY, Maine — The call comes on steamy summer days, when Maine Wildlife Park’s most popular residents tend to take their siestas in a shady bed of cool leaves.

“Please move your moose!”

When he can, Curt Johnson complies.

“They’re serious,” said Johnson, the park’s superintendent. “They want us to coax the moose to come up close so they can get some pictures.”

Often Johnson or a gamekeeper will cut a leafy branch off a maple or aspen sapling — a moose version of fast food — and entice the bull or the cow into the sunlight. It’s a small gesture that seems to please everyone, moose and moose-gawker alike.

Other animal parks might not make such a concession to the camera carriers, but Johnson knows who his stars are.

“It’s amazing how popular the moose are,” Johnson said. Folks sometimes drive hours to the park with the singular goal of seeing a moose up close. “They are obviously important to the park, and they are a fascinating species.”

But they are not the only residents here.

The park features 79 different species native to Maine. Among them are foxes, bears, mountain lions, white-tailed deer, wild turkeys and woodchucks.

All are the responsibility of the 31-year-old Houlton native who gave up life as a grocer to return to college and become Maine’s own zookeeper.

Johnson, who graduated from Houlton High School in 1998, earned a bachelor’s degree in business administration at the University of Maine. He was on a firm career path as a manager for Hannaford when he decided he needed to spend more time outdoors.

He went back to college and earned a second degree, this time in wildlife ecology. When he graduated, he went to work for the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife.

He spent a short time studying bears. Then he landed his current job.

The quiet, amiable guy with two wildly different degrees seems right for a job that combines a love of animals and the outdoors and lots of business. The position requires someone to know how to submit a budget and handle retail sales as well as care for a bald eagle and feed a fox.

“It works for me,” said Johnson, who seems to be moving all the time at the park, often driving a golf cart along the narrow dirt trails that encircle the Gray park and switchback up its little slopes.

The park is run without any dedicated tax money. Revenue comes from admission fees and the sale of souvenirs.

In the winter, the 50-building complex is watched over by Johnson and three other staffers, all answering to DIFW. They care for the animals and maintain the buildings and roads.

“There are things that need to be repaired every single day,” he said. “It just never stops.”

That’s particularly true on winter weekends, when staff rotate through the responsibility of watching the whole place alone.

In the summer, it’s a different place. They add about a dozen seasonal workers. The park’s 150 volunteers also take on many duties, from selling tickets at the main entrance to mowing the grass.

“They keep us going,” Johnson said of the volunteers. “We couldn’t run a single day without them.”

Days begin with the usual work of any busy public place — picking up litter, cleaning toilets and filling vending machines. As the people stream in, often by the busload, things get unpredictable.

Mostly people follow the rules. But there are those who don’t.

One guy tried to climb the fence to join the coyotes.

“He said the coyote was his brother,” Johnson said. Another tried getting past the public barrier to reach the moose. “She felt some some sort of connection with the moose, a spiritual connection or whatever.”

Johnson doesn’t have a favorite animal. However, he said he is intrigued by the porcupines.

“That’s because of their personality, not so much because of their species,” he said.

When he happens on them in the forest, they usually run off as best they can,” he said. But the one’s here seem less shy.

“They make these noises, you know,” Johnson said, trying to replicate their high-pitched whine. “Then one of them walks in a circle.”

“It’s comical” he said.

To see more from the Sun Journal, visit sunjournal.com.

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