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Nature is a Million Questions

by Doug Caldwell about a month ago in wild animals

A Day at the Office

Photo: YWP

It was a Tuesday morning early in June; the sun warm and bright promising a lovely afternoon. I was checking the oil in our tour bus when I felt my sleeve being pulled gently. I turned to see an elderly lady – obviously a tourist here for a visit. “Hello” I said acknowledging her contact.

“I think one of your animals is having a baby – there are legs coming out of its bum.” She said while pointing to our nearest wildlife exhibit.

“Really? Well let’s go see then,” I said and then announced the interesting event to some other visitors who were wandering around waiting for the bus tour to begin. They assembled quickly and followed me up the ramp. With a gaggle of visitors from all corners of the planet we filled the observation platform overlooking our collection of elk.

As promised, there were legs coming out the back end of one of our elk cows. Everybody had their cameras, smart phones and iPads aimed at the female elk twenty feet in front of us who was preparing to give birth as I provided a color commentary of the scene. She lay down on the ground and began to move her hind legs in an attempt to adjust the calf into a more agreeable birthing position.

In an instant she was back up on her feet and seconds later, the calf dropped gently to the ground. There was a chorus of oohs and aahs as mom turned to lick her newly born calf removing the remains of the placenta membrane to allow the calf’s coat to dry. Nobody was in a hurry to leave and continued to watch and take pictures for the next five or six minutes when mom encouraged her baby to get to its feet and take those all important first steps. The assembled audience once again expressed their approval with a chorus of aahs. A minute or two later the babe began to suckle her first meal of mother’s milk containing the vitally important colostrum. I then began to explain the importance of baby’s first meal of mother’s milk primarily for the men-folk as most human mothers already know the values of colostrum.

Photo: YWP

I am an Interpretive Wildlife Guide and my job at the Yukon Wildlife Preserve is to help our visitors to observe and better understand the creatures we have on display and define Nature as a whole in our northern environment. As a result I am required to know a wide variety of information about our 12 species of sub-arctic animals we have on display, but also the multitudes of wild creatures that make the Preserve their home. I need to know their evolution, biology, how they arrived here, new science related to them, and a million little things about their species, diet, breeding habits, natural range, migration patterns and much more.

Prior to the COVID pandemic, the Preserve hosted visitors each season from around the globe who come hoping to see the animal species they had not yet seen outside of television programs and magazines. We often make dreams come true for visitors longing to see a favorite animal up close. Other the years I have seen some patterns develop; Australians seem to have a fascination for moose and caribou, while Europeans will often spend a lot of time watching our Musk Oxen. Asian visitors are captivated by our red and Arctic foxes and everybody likes our three lynx and watching the mountain goats running up and down the rock faces.

Trip Advisor has consistently scored us 4.5 out of 5 based on visitor comments after they have walked the five kilometer route or taken a guided bus tour to observe the variety of animals in our collection.

Photo: YWP

Open all year, we provide tours during every season and focus attention on what we are witnessing the animals doing at that time of year. We experience a wide range of environmental changes from the hot sultry days of summer to the cold frigid days of winter, except when it’s colder than -35 Celsius, that’s where we draw the line to keep our visitors safe from the risks associated with the Yukon’s sub-zero weather conditions.

The Yukon Wildlife Preserve rehabilitates injured animals and raises orphaned creatures brought to us by individuals and conservation officials. Recent additions to our animal family include a young Golden Eagle and two adolescent Bald Eagles each has injuries serious enough for us to keep them over the winter season to ensure their survival.

Photo: YWP

Watson, is a two year old bull moose who joined us in the summer of 2018 after his mother was killed by a freight truck on the Alaska highway. We acquired another young bull moose in June of 2019 when his mother also perished due to a vehicular collision.

Both of these young fellows were treated with a regimented protocol for young large animals that may be experiencing shock related to the trauma of becoming orphaned, but also the hurried close contact they experienced as conservation officers captured and transported them to our facilities. Wild creatures instinctively avoid humans, so being captured by big burly men, wrapped in an odd smelling blanket and put into the back of a pickup truck and driven some miles to us, must be the equivalent to them of an alien abduction in the human experience.

Photo: YWP

Once here at the Preserve our animal care staff begin their work by getting the animal settled down and hydrated, while inspecting them for injuries they may have sustained. Isolated from all stimuli the calves are provided food, water and quiet so they may relax and become accustomed to their new lives away from their mothers in an environment they have never experienced before. Stress makes young animals susceptible to a variety of illnesses, so calm is the permanent order for the Rehab Centre.

Constantly monitored, the calves are moved to an outdoor habitat after a few weeks of becoming better acquainted to their new surroundings. Consider: all the smells are different, the taste of the water is also different as are the sounds around them and there is no mom or a sibling to provide comfort they are familiar with. Being sheltered indoors prevents them from seeing the sky, the ground and all the other things they are familiar with in their young lives

Photo: YWP

Explaining this one aspect of our work here to our visitors stimulates many questions. So biology and veterinary techniques are but a few of the things I am expected to know well enough to provide answers in lay-terms for people to have a greater appreciation for what our staff are required to do to care for these animals. The Rehab Centre is not part of the general tour, but arrangements can be made for small groups.

I am also required to have a working knowledge of our local environment, how it became the way it is and how a variety of creatures adapted to thrive in these biomes, and why they came here and continue to migrate to new areas. Predator-- prey relationships and how these may change during the seasons as well as the impacts of forest fires, floods and similar natural disasters and how the biodiversity may be impacted are also topics I am well familiar with..

One of the more common questions our visitors ask is about the antlers and horns of our animals. They are different in that antlers are grown and shed each year while horns remain with the animal for all of its life and do not grow back even when broken or damaged in some way. Many are surprised to learn how the annual antler cycle is closely connected to the breeding season and how Nature’s timing works to complement the animals’ health and habits.

Did you know that a moose’s antlers can grow up to two inches per day depending on their diet, and that antlers are the fastest growing tissue of any mammal? I have a ten minute verbal presentation on the antler cycle that addresses the many questions I have heard in my years as a guide.

Photo: Ywp

I am also required to know the subtle differences between our other antlered species of Woodland Caribou, Elk and Mule Deer; which also means I need to know the differences for those that have horns such as Mountain Sheep, Mountain Goats, Musk Oxen and Wood Bison which are the horned species we care for at the YWP.

Animal care staff form close bonds with these creatures and help tremendously in their readjustment from the wild to living with their own kind behind a fence. As these bonds form, the animals become less stressed and in time learn that their new surroundings are safe and they are protected from predators. Our primary goal is to heal the animal and return it to the wild where it belongs, however that is not always possible with every creature we care for.

Photo YWP

Raptors such as eagles, hawks and owls for example must demonstrate they are capable of strong reliable flight before they can be released because these creatures must hunt to sustain themselves in the wild. Those with injuries that cannot be corrected and may prevent them from self-sustaining in the wild are kept here at the Preserve where they will become exhibits to help further the understanding and education of our visitors – and these animals that cannot be released get spoiled while they are here.

Photo: YWP

An example of this spoiling relates to our three lynx. In the wild and depending on the time of year and the species they are hunting, a wild lynx has an average hunting success rate of around 31 to 45%. In other terms, that means the lynx will get to eat 3 or perhaps 4 times a week if they are good hunters and there is lots to hunt. Here at the Preserve, the lynx and all other creatures eat every day, but even then the carnivores still hunt for rodents and birds that may be found in their habitats.

Did you know a lynx will leave morsels of food out in view to attract ravens, magpies and grey jays. When the birds land to steal this bait the cat will pounce from its hiding place nearby.

Photo YWP

Our animal care staff will often be required to bottle feed the very young animals we receive before they are weaned. This close and nurturing contact with humans helps to remove the natural cautions animals have towards people so that some young animals form strong bonds with their care-givers.

Photo: YWP

The close bonds young animals form with humans here may become an Achilles heel in that when animals lose their fear of humans they become at risk from being overly friendly and if returned to the wild may wonder into a backyard or a campground in search of people with food which can promote new dangers. It’s called habituation. This is one of the primary causes of animals and people coming into conflict and the principal reason why wild animals should never be fed. A fed wild animal will become a dead wild animal. Animals in our care that do become habituated remain at the Preserve for the rest of their lives so they remain safe and healthy.

YWP has four primary habitat types; Grasslands, wetlands, mountain slopes and forests and each is unique in its biodiversity, environmental sensitivities and seasonal cycles. Coupled with migration patterns of insects, birds and small mammals like Little Brown Bats, YWP is in a constant state of change and because it is always changing, we guides must be aware of these changes and the importance they have to the various creatures and how they evolved and interact with each other as the seasons change.

Did you know: Depending on the availability of food and when conditions are good, some mouse species can give birth to a litter of babies up to ten times per year—even in the cold of winter-- and there can be from one to sixteen pups per litter. The next generation will only need 6 to 8 weeks to reach reproductive maturity so they too can start having babies. This is one of the natural reasons so many creatures of all sizes eat mice, they are abundant and easy to catch and can live just about anywhere vegetation grows.

Weather in the north can be very dramatic. With summer temps often reaching 100 degrees under a bright sun that stays high in the sky late into the summer evening-- this is the Land of the Midnight Sun-- to 65 below the freezing mark in the winter darkness under the Aurora Borealis. Each year wildlife has other challenges to endure beyond finding enough to eat.

Photo: D. Caldwell

I am constantly reading biological studies and reports on wild animal issues that are occurring here in the north. Climate change is taking up a lot of time to better understand the various impacts and how these changes are all interlinked and what the results may do to influence animal behaviour. Nature is the Big Ball of String. It’s all connected and if one part of it is altered in some way the reactions can be witnessed in so many other locations, with varying degrees of severity.

New discoveries are also being observed; for example a local bird enthusiast observed a Calliope Hummingbird-- the smallest bird in North America, on Herschel Island in the Beaufort Sea, 1200 miles north of its traditional range. Other species are also exploring new habitats in the north. In the summer months we now see new migrators such as: common crows, hummingbirds in our gardens and Stellar Jays that have moved over from Alaska and numerous song birds common to the south. They return to the south in the fall, but one day in the future they will make the leap and adapt to living here if the winter weather conditions and dietary needs are agreeable for them year-round.

Photo: Cameron Eckert

The digital age is proving to be a profound benefit for the greater understanding of our natural world due to the sharing of various flavors of research being considered as contributing viewpoints on many topics as biologists, geologists, anthropologists, glaciologists, and all the other ‘ologists’ publish their reports and studies and some of these compliment new or existing knowledge in other scientific disciplines. In some cases this cross pollination of data has created new partnerships for a more fulsome understanding of our natural world and the creatures that inhabit it.

I recently read a study of how the three sub-species of Thin-horn Mountain Sheep developed their unique features due to glacial growth and migrations over the past few thousands of years. Some sheep were trapped by the glaciers in localized areas, preventing them from breeding with others and expanding their genetic diversity. Once the glaciers melted about 12 thousand years ago, the sheep could breed with others and they did, resulting in a mongrelisation of the three sub-species into a modern hybrid Thin-horn Mountain Sheep. This all happened many thousands of years ago, but with research data being shared more broadly, a greater understanding of our ancient world becomes possible. Don’t get me started on DNA.

Photo: YWP

This expansion of new knowledge also contributes to our visitors asking more difficult questions as public understanding is enhanced by David Attenborough, National Geographic and similar nature programs.

There are often times when we have to break some hearts and counter what some visitors may have been taught on the Disney Channel. Our goal here at the YWP is to display Nature in all its unvarnished glory-- carnage and all. It is not uncommon to witness a wild fox or an eagle capturing a ground squirrel in one of the pastures and commence to eat it in front of our younger visitors. Truth be told, many of them think it is COOL and say so.

This of course stimulates questions about how northern animals must prepare for reproducing and raising their offspring, getting enough nourishment in preparation to migrate south before winter returns, or how the creatures that don’t migrate prepare to endure a frigid Yukon winter.

We get a diverse range of questions from our visitors and our presentations on the animals during a tour will often stimulate more queries we are pleased to answer. I don’t know everything, but I often am encouraged to go learn more about something so that I can better answer the questions next time they get asked.

Public education and sharing information about our work with animals is a significant part of what we do every day of the year and since the COVID has limited our volume of visitors, we are now reaching out via our website to keep people informed about our animals and some of their unique behaviors. We are ever hopeful that this pandemic will soon be under control and once again we will play host to curious animal lovers with lots of questions from all over the globe; but microbiology is a part of Nature too, so the pandemic is stimulating me to learn more.

Photo: YWP

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Doug Caldwell
Doug Caldwell
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Doug Caldwell

I hope to learn from all of you members on this site and share in some tale-telling. I am looking forward to the different styles used to tell these stories. I look forward to reading yours.

Be Well

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