While researching the Virginia opossum for my recent BDN story on opossums living in Maine, I spent a day at the Maine Wildlife Park in Gray, where they keep not only opossums, but a wide variety of other animals that either live in Maine (such as black bears) or used to live in Maine (such as mountain lions).

Photo by Aislinn Sarnacki
An opossum in the outdoor exhibit of Maine Wildlife Park on Oct. 22, 2012.

First, of course, I visited the opossum living in the outdoor exhibit. He’s been at the park for about 2 years, and he’s nearing the end of his life. Opossums are very short-lived animals.

Since he was the first opossum I’ve seen (aside from in books and on the internet), I was pretty blown away. An animal lover, I found him pretty cute when he stuck his head out of the hollow tree he was sleeping in. Park superintendant Curt Johnson allowed me past the metal fencing and into the enclosure to take some photos and get a closer look — another first. We then moved on to a building — where they rehabilitate the young or injured animals people rescue and bring to the park —  to visit three young opossums that joined the park about two weeks ago. Their mother had been killed by a car near Freeport.

Photo by Aislinn Sarnacki Two young opossums at Maine Wildlife Park on Oct. 22, 2012.

The rehabilitation building smelled like hay, wild animals and beef stew, which was cooking in a giant pot on the stove. “What’s cooking?” I asked. “Beef stew for the bears,” the employees replied as they chopped up vegetables and fruit for other animal meals. Much of the food is donated by the local Hannaford, they explained.

Not far from the kitchen area, assistant gamekeeper Pam Richardson, who has worked at the park since 2004, brought me to the small enclosure where the three young opossums were being kept. As we watched the slow-moving animals, she talked to me about the opossum habits she has observed while caring for numerous opossums over the years. One of the opossums displayed her irritation at us by growling and pacing. So Pam took the opportunity to pick the opossum up and show me her human-like feet and long, grasping tail. Pam then offered to bring me around the park on a special tour to see some of the other animals.

I had to wait for about a half an hour while Pam brought some visitors on a special photo pass, so I visited the birds.

Photo by Aislinn Sarnacki
A bald eagle at Maine Wildlife Park enjoys the sun on Oct. 22, 2012.
Photo by Aislinn Sarnacki. A golden eagle at the Maine Wildlife Park in Gray on Oct. 22, 2012.

I also took the opportunity to check in on the mountain lions. In May, I visited the park to write a BDN story on the opening of the improved and larger mountain lion exhibit,

BDN photo by Aislinn Sarnacki
A mountain lion enjoys a sunny October day at the Maine Wildlife Park in Gray on Oct. 22, 2012.

and I wanted to visit the mountain lions and see how they were doing — especially since both of the mountain lions, about 14 and 20 years old, are considered old for their species. I arrived to find the 14-year-old female walking around in the grass. When I had visited the park in May, the ground of the enclosure had been all mud and hay, but in October, it was a beautiful home, filled with plants and tall grass. As I snapped a few photos, the female walked out of the cave and into the sun to relax in the soft grass.

Walking out the exhibit viewing area (basically a hallway of tough glass), I spotted Pam sitting in one of the park’s golf carts and flagged her down. She was on her way to the food storage buildings to pick up some grain for the fawns at the rehabilitation building, so I hopped in the cart and joined her. On the way, we stopped to feed snacks to the two park moose.

Photo by Aislinn Sarnacki. A female moose waits for a snack of raspberry plant leaves from assistant gamekeeper Pam Richardson on Oct. 22, 2012 at the Maine Wildlife Park. Credit: BANGOR DAILY NEWS PHOTO BY KATE COLLINS

Pam first stopped at a roofed structure where they typically feed the female moose. While feeding the moose raspberry plant leaves as a snack, Pam assured me that the moose was actually very “sweet” and enjoyed company. However, the park employees try to refrain from calling the wild animals at the park things like “sweet,” “cute” or

Photo by Aislinn Sarnacki
A bull moose at the Maine Wildlife Park in Gray on Oct. 22, 2012. Credit: BANGOR DAILY NEWS PHOTO BY SCOTT HASKELL

“friendly” because they don’t want visitors to think of the animals as pets. They are, after all, wild animals. And one of the main reasons the animals are at the park is because they were taken in as pets and are now deemed non-releasable because they never learned to survive in the natural environment.

In fact, all of the animals at the Maine Wildlife Park are considered non-releasable (not likely to survive in the natural world and therefore not candidates for release from captivity). Many animals are injured. For example, many of the birds have broken or mangled wings. Some of the animals were abandoned or orphaned as young. And others were simple taken in by people as pets. A few of the animals come from zoos.

One of the most important rules at the Maine Wildlife Park is that visitors are not allowed to feed the animals. It would be bad for the wild animals and could be dangerous to visitors. However, Pam allowed me to feed a few raspberry leaves to the female moose and gently touch her enormous, soft nose. The moose was especially interested in the way I smelled and had a great time sniffing my hair and shirt. The main reason the female moose is so gentle is because she’s been in captivity her entire life. She was abandoned as a baby.

We then visited the bull moose at his feeding station, where he was about to be fed a nutrient-rich mixture of food by a gamekeeper. The bull moose was a bit more intimidating and reminded me just how dangerous moose can be. Fortunately, he couldn’t fit his entire rack into the building, but he tried to by tipping his head sideways and fitting one side of his rack in at a time. He was technically “playing,” Pam said, not angry, but a person could still be injured if not paying attention while feeding him. The moose’s strength was evident by the loud thuds he created as he raked his antlers on the side of the building. I fed him half an apple and then kept my distance. He’s a truly beautiful animal. One might never guess that he’s a sick animal. One of his current issues is irritable bowl syndrome (a.k.a. the runs), Pam explained.

From there, Pam grabbed some food for the fawns and we headed back to the rehabilitation building, making a quick pitstop at the white-tailed deer exhibit to visit their oldest deer, Joe. They try not to name their animals (again, so visitors don’t compare them to pets), but sometimes, if an animal has been around long enough,

Photo by Pam Richardson. Aislinn Sarnacki and an old white-tailed buck at the Maine Wildlife Park in Gray on Oct. 22,2012. The deer, having been in captivity for so long, doesn’t mind humans being nearby, unlike white-tailed deer living in the wild.

it’s hard for the employees not to call them by certain names. Joe had some messed up antlers, but aside from that, he seemed to be doing pretty well. And while all the other deer (about a dozen) kept their distance from Pam and I as we entered the massive enclosure, Joe stayed right where he was lying. That was the only time I thought to have Pam take a photo of me and an animal! I guess I was just caught up in the excitement of seeing so many wild animals up close and in a safe setting. What a privilege.

Photo by Aislinn Sarnacki
A bobcat at the Maine Wildlife Park eats a chipmunk that has wandered into its enclosure on Oct. 22, 2012.

As we drove back to the rehabilitation building, we noticed that a few bobcats were growling at each other in their enclosure, so we stopped to take a look. The park is currently home to two pairs of bobcats (three females and one male), and one of them had actually caught a wild chipmunk that had unwisely wandered into their double-walled enclosure. Two other park employees stopped to take in the spectacle, enjoying the site of the bobcat conducting such a natural act in captivity. They let me past the first wall of the enclosure (I was still protected by the second wall) to take some photos, which I promised to send them by e-mail. The employees at the park really seem to care about the animals.

Credit: BANGOR DAILY NEWS PHOTO BY KATE COLLINS
Credit: BANGOR DAILY NEWS PHOTO BY KATE COLLINS

The fawns were getting hungry no doubt, so we continued back to their indoor-outdoor enclosure at the rehabilitation building to feed them s meal – a mixture of grains, molasses, vitamins, etc. The female fawn, just born in August, came over to suck on our fingers (she doesn’t have much for teeth yet), and the other fawn, a May buck, sauntered over to have his head scratched between the tiny bumps where antlers will some day grow.

Photo by Aislinn Sarnacki
An orphaned fawn born August 2012 pauses from eating to look at the camera while her companion, an orphaned buck born in May 2012 continues to eat at the Maine Wildlife Park in Gray. The buck will join the parks large white-tailed deer exhibit and the female fawn will likely be sent to one of Maine’s many animal rehabilitators.

Thank you, Pam, for letting me tag along as you cared for the animals at the park. I wanted to stay longer, but I had a story on opossums to write. I’ll be back again soon, I’m sure.

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Aislinn Sarnacki

Aislinn Sarnacki is the BDN Act Out editor, focusing on outdoor recreation and Maine wildlife. She can be reached at asarnacki@bangordailynews.com. Follow her on Twitter: @1minhikegirl, and Instagram:...