Thousands of people from near and far visit the animals at the Maine Wildlife Park in Gray each summer. They may see a moose, learn about raptors or admire the bears.
Meanwhile, the staff at the park, which is run by the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife, is busy caring for the animals and educating the public about the reality of the animals’ needs and instincts.
When it comes to the wild animals, relationships with humans require delicate balance, and nowhere is that more obvious than at the park.
“We have a very unique situation where we’re caring for nonrelease animals … [but] we want people to know that despite what happens here, these animals do not make good pets and there’s no one that knows that more than us,” Curtis Johnson, park superintendent said.
A delicate balance
The animals at the sanctuary are there to live out the remainder of their days, which inherently changes the way staffers get to know and care for them. For one reason or another, the animals have all been deemed not viable for life in the wild, and some may have already developed a human dependence.
It makes messaging and educating the public challenging. The Maine Wildlife Park staff wants visitors to know that wild animals don’t make good pets, but it can be a confusing concept to grasp when they see and hear about staff caring for the creatures. Caretakers tell people the animals are ambassadors for their species and keep the focus on education. Instead of pointing out how cute or cuddly a baby moose looks for example, they’ll talk about the animal’s life, its history or how DIF&W manages populations in Maine.
But the animals are smart and they see a lot of their caretakers.
“They see someone in uniform, and they know that food is likely coming,” Johnson said.
It sounds endearing, but keeping the relationship between staff and animals as close to the natural interactions the animals might have in the wild is key.
As a result, a lot of care is done simultaneously. Caretakers will use the animal’s feeding time to clean or take care of the exhibit, or they will use food to lure the animal into a lock box instead of leading it by a leash or otherwise moving it.
Anne Lichtenwalner, an associate professor, veterinarian and director at the University of Maine Animal Health Laboratory, said staffers at the Gray facility can take several steps to avoid humanizing the animal.
Staffers can avoid eye contact or trying to act dominant. They also can try feeding the animals without letting them know humans are nearby by making sure staffers smell like the animal instead of a recent shower.
Lichtenwalner said all of these precautions are important because it also is easy for humans to fall in love with animals, especially ones they can relate to.
A dangerous love
Johnson said the park has never had any major issues with an animal, a fact he credits to caretakers’ vigilance.
“The more you go in with them and expose yourself, the more it increases the likelihood that something bad could happen,” Johnson said.
Lichtenwalner said awareness of an animal’s “wild side” is difficult for people to grasp because of what she calls the “Disney” effect — the humanization of animals that subconsciously makes us forget they are wild or dangerous.
“We don’t even recognize each other’s autonomy, so it’s very natural that we make assumptions about animals and their choices that are reflective of how we think about our daily lives,” Lichtenwalner said.
She uses the example of a 2014 incident in which a pair of snowmobilers was charged by a moose after it had been spooked by their sleds. The woman seen in the video told the Bangor Daily News she and her husband were not “chasing” the moose or antagonizing it at all when it suddenly turned around and stood its ground.
While terrifying for the people involved, Lichtenwalner said it’s a good reminder that we cannot expect wild animals to never give in to their instincts, no matter how doe-eyed and cuddly they may appear.
“That moose had had enough. They typically don’t go for people, but that was a totally natural reaction to being harassed,” she said. “We shouldn’t even be surprised, we should just know better.”
With deer, human interaction can be particularly dangerous because deer quickly learn to eat grain or other food left out. People will think they are helping the animals, but it can be very dangerous for them, sometimes resulting in death, Lichtenwalner said.
The park averages 100,000 visitors per year, which means the animals see more humans in one summer than their wild counterparts would in a lifetime. So staffers are extra careful they stay behind the scenes, or if they interact with the public, it’s most often using props.
A caretaker may stand in front of the bear exhibit and show visitors items such as bear teeth or hide. Very rarely are animals shown to the public in a show type environment.
“That’s where we’re different from zoos,” Johnson said. “We really feel that would send a mixed message.
The only exception is birds such as bald eagles or hawks. But Johnson said he thinks people more easily associate a bird as wild or a “nonpet.”
“With mammals, there’s more of an emotional response; they have those big eyes, they’re furry and soft,” Johnson said. “It’s easier for people to see them as pets like cats and dogs.”
Despite the love the caretakers and visitors express for the animals at the Gray park, many of the creatures there don’t reciprocate the feelings. Or at least they don’t show them in a human way.
Some animals are afraid of humans and will run when they see someone approaching, others will hide. But Johnson said it’s important to remember that the animal that isn’t afraid can actually be more dangerous than the one that runs.
“It’s the ones who aren’t afraid you don’t know about” he said.
“In a moment of fear … they could do something explosive, and it can become dangerous very quickly,” he said. “I don’t think it’s safe to say the instincts are ever totally gone, they are right under the surface. … You don’t know when they can snap.”
An unavoidable love
Despite all the precautions and education about the instincts and dangers of wild animals, relationships resembling love do occur between the caretakers and the animals.
But to some degree, it’s part of the job. Having a trusting relationship with the animals allows staff to better care for them and is a natural connection for anyone interested in their welfare.
“I don’t think we’d do as good of a job if our relationship with them was more distant,” Johnson said. “We want to avoid humanizing them … but you obviously care for their welfare, and your job is to give them the best life possible.
The animals at the park have names, but they are for the caretakers’ use only. It does help foster a relationship, but Johnson said making a true connection is more than a name.
“They all have individual personalities, and you learn those when you are providing care for them on a daily basis, that’s what fosters those relationships,” Johnson said.
Lichtenwalner said many times making eye contact with an animal, observing human-like emotions and just simply spending time with it can lead people to develop what humans call “love” for a creature.
Death also is a part of life at the Gray park. With about 80 different native Maine animals from 30 different species, Johnson said there are often animals sick or dying and new ones coming in. And it’s not easy.
“It would be dishonest to say there’s not a sadness or sense of loss. It is a sad thing to lose an animal, especially since from the human perspective, they really are like pets,” Johnson said.
However, Johnson said he and others take comfort knowing the animal was given a fighting chance at growing old.
“There’s a comfort in that this is what we’re here to do, to bring them to old age,” Johnson said. “We’ve provided them with a good life, and it’s a ‘mission accomplished’ type of thing.”