Alaska Zoo celebrates 50 years
1969 was a busy year. There was the moon landing, Woodstock music festival and the beginning of the Alaska Zoo.
If it weren't for one toilet paper company’s odd contest prize, the nonprofit for orphaned and injured animals may not have happened.
In 1966, the Crown Zellerbach paper company held a contest where the grand prize was $3,000 or a baby elephant. The winner was an Alaskan grocer named Jack Snyder; he picked the elephant and 2-year-old Annabelle came to Alaska.
Snyder later offered Annabelle to Mrs. Sammye Seawell, who owned the Diamond H horse ranch in Anchorage. She thought the city needed a place where people could see and learn more about animals.
Zoo director Pat Lampi says Seawell added an orphaned black bear cub named Tuffy plus a seal and fox, and the zoo was born.
"Eventually they brought another elephant in to be a companion, which was Maggie," Lampi said.
Maggie and Annabelle became staples in the community.
And after more than 30 years at the zoo, Lampi has too.
He's watched the zoo grow alongside its animals, like crowd favorites Oreo and Ahpun — an orphaned pair of bear cubs, one brown and one polar bear — who once lived together at the zoo.
Ahpun died suddenly in late 2017, but Oreo, now 21, lives with two other brown bears. Lampi says the zoo will most likely always be home for her.
"I wish there was more ways to return them to the wild, but unfortunately a lot of the animals that come in are so young and without their mothers’ care and knowledge, they just won't survive out in the wild," Lampi said.
For Lampi, the zoo represents a second shot at life. He says about 80% of the animals housed there now were either orphaned or injured when they arrived.
That was the case for Binky, the orphaned polar bear who became a state hero after mauling a tourist in 1994. A 29-year-old Australian woman named Kathryn Warburton scaled two safety rails to get a close-up picture of Binky in his enclosure.
The polar bear stuck his arm through the bars and grabbed her leg. Warburton suffered bite wounds and broken bones. Binky narrowly missed her femoral artery.
Warburton was clearly at fault, and Alaskans are still proud of Binky for enforcing the rules. The zoo's gift shop sells shirts that read, “Binky says: Send more tourists, the last one got away.”
Since Annabelle died in 1997, the zoo has focused on caring for animals native to the north.
The zoo's current mission describes it as a place that’s "dedicated to promoting conservation of Arctic, sub-Arctic and like climate species through education, research and community enrichment."
"A few exotic species that we have gotten from other zoos that, they have animals, but needed some other place for them to go. But other than that it's Alaskan animals," Lampi said.
As for the future, Lampi says the zoo is decidedly keeping its focus small.
"It's been more about not necessarily bringing in a bunch of new animals all the time, it's more making better habitats for what we already have -- be a great little zoo," Lampi said.
The zoo is hosting a 50th anniversary celebration on Saturday, Aug. 17 from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Admission is half off that day.
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