Where the Wild Things Are

Once the State Game Farm on the brink of closure, the Maine Wildlife Park has become a haven for animals and humans alike.

By Kim Ridley  Photographed by Amy Wilton

[T]he moose peeks out between tall white pines, her dark brown hide blending with the bark. She swivels her ears and ambles toward us. My heart speeds up as she draws closer. She pokes her massive head through the door of the feeding station, where Steve Oliveri awaits with one of her favorite treats: sweet potatoes.

“Sweet potatoes seem to help prevent irritable bowel syndrome,” says Oliveri, the assistant superintendent of the Maine Wildlife Park in Gray. After snuffling up the snack, the moose sniffs us with her huge, velvety nose. She herself smells like a horse, only sweeter.

Orphaned at birth, the four-year-old moose is among more than eighty native critters (plus a mountain lion and peacocks) that reside at the park. Unable to survive in the wild because they were orphaned, injured, or raised in captivity, these creatures live out their days in the care of Oliveri and his colleagues in naturalistic habitats scattered among forty acres of forest and fields. These wild animals have become, in park lingo, “ambassadors” for their species.

Monday morning finds Oliveri and gamekeeper Howie Powell feeding the ambassadors breakfast. Powell steps into a large enclosure that resembles a hillocky meadow, where a gray fox trots in circles in the grass, sniffing the ground. Fourteen months old and smaller than the two red foxes next door, the little gray is nearly blind and probably has neurological problems as well.

“He’s my special case,” Powell says fondly as he watches the fox nab a rabbit haunch he has set out for it, along with dog chow and apple chunks. “He had a bad eye infection when he arrived, and I had to put ointment in his eyes three times a day.” Powell also had to put the young fox to bed every night in its den, a doghouse stuffed with straw.

It’s all in a day’s work for Oliveri, Powell, and their colleagues at the park, who today are doing everything from repairing a hydrant to getting a mountain lion ready to have a blood sample drawn. Following them on their morning rounds offers a glimpse into a fascinating world that may well challenge your assumptions about wildlife.

“What we’re trying to do is foster an appreciation of Maine’s wildlife and provide information about how humans can coexist with wild animals,” says Lisa Kane, education coordinator for the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife. “People are less likely to be frightened or annoyed when wild animals show up in their backyards if they understand that each animal has a job to do in its habitat,” Kane says.

The park provides an up-close look at some of Maine’s most intriguing wild animals in exhibits that mimic their natural habitats. Here, you can take in the sheer enormity of a moose, watch a bobcat sun itself on a pile of logs, or gaze into the eyes of a tiny saw-whet owl and dozens of other wild creatures — and learn about their lives. An accompanying audio tour reveals astonishing facts about each animal. Moose, for instance, can easily swim seven miles. Opossums, which arrived in southern Maine about a decade ago, are marsupials and have more teeth (fifty) than any other land mammal in North America. Great horned owls are the first birds to breed in Maine each year, and lay their eggs in February.

More than 100,000 people visit the Maine Wildlife Park every year. They come to see the thirty species of animals, picnic under the pines, wander the nature trails, and attend events ranging from a Native American powwow to a workshop on gardening for wildlife. With such happy crowds, it’s hard to believe that this place was nearly closed a couple of decades ago.

What’s now the park was originally the State Game Farm. Established in 1931 by the Maine Department of Fish and Game to raise ring-necked pheasants for hunting, the farm soon became a repository for wild animals that couldn’t survive on their own. Back then, most of the animals lived in “the row,” a compound of dark, roofed pens with cement floors.

The pheasant operation was shut down in 1981, and a decade later the entire game farm was almost closed due to state budget cuts. Local citizens persuaded the Maine State Legislature to save it from the chopping block, but lawmakers issued a mandate in 1992 requiring the farm to become self-supporting. The next year, citizens created Friends of the Game Farm, a nonprofit group dedicated to raising funds to build new wildlife habitats and displays and to support the farm’s educational programs. In 1998, the game farm, now under the renamed Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife, was itself renamed the Maine Wildlife Park.

In the fifteen years since, the Friends of Maine Wildlife Park have raised hundreds of thousands of dollars to help staff transform the struggling game farm into the lively zoological park it is today. All of the animals have been sprung from “the row” and moved into sunny, airy new quarters — including two mountain lions whose spacious, dramatic enclosure opened in 2012. In addition to fundraising, the 150 or so Friends do almost anything that needs doing around the park, from running the Snack Shack and gift shop to leading tours.

Ray Clark, president of the Friends, loves bringing people around the park, especially school kids. “One day I was leading a tour of middle-school students and we were walking past the pond, where a bird was swimming,” Clark says. “I asked the kids if any of them knew what kind of bird that was. One of them said, ‘a loon,’ another one said ‘a duck,’ and a third one said, ‘a swan.’ I wondered, how do kids in Maine not know a Canada goose when they see one? It’s not their fault — nobody ever told them.”

He’s quick to add that being able to tell a loon from a goose is only the beginning of what kids can learn at the park. “Kids need animals,” Clark says. “They need to see these wild animals and understand that animals deserve respect, because I think that helps them understand that everybody deserves respect, and they do, too.

“All of us who volunteer here have had amazing, life-changing experiences,” Clark continues. He says one of the best for him was seeing an old albino porcupine moved to an airy new enclosure after spending most of her life on the row. “She was propped up on a tree soaking up the sun for the first time in her life,” Clark says. “It made me feel really good. It’s not rocket science, but it’s a little thing that made a real difference for that animal.”

After Oliveri tends to the cow moose and the bull next door, he feeds the small herd of deer that seems to materialize from thin air in a grove of oaks and pine. “They eat the cranberries first and then go for the seeds in the squash,” he says as the deer nibble their breakfast of produce donated by local supermarkets. An experienced field biologist who was formerly executive director of the Viles Arboretum in Augusta, Oliveri is clearly at home among these creatures and cares deeply about them. He cuts browse for the moose and deer and says he often thinks about the animals when he’s not at work.

The park’s creatures touch visitors’ lives as well. When Bob, the elderly mountain lion, had to be put to sleep last November, more than 4,500 people read the tribute on the park’s Facebook page, and hundreds posted their condolences and memories. “It was a real example of how people love the park and love the animals,” Kane says.

And perhaps that really is the point. At a time when kids and adults alike are spending more time online, the Maine Wildlife Park offers an invitation to disengage from the virtual world and reconnect with the real one. This funky, low-key place encourages slowing down and looking, really looking, at the wild creatures who live here, and realizing that others of their kind may well be our neighbors.

“Most people will never get any closer to wild animals than this,” Oliveri says. “I hope that our animals also stir their souls a little bit — giving them pause to think, or at least feel, that the living world is larger than themselves.”

If You Go

Maine Wildlife Park, 56 Game Farm Road (off Route 26), Gray, is open daily, 9:30 am – 4:30 pm, from mid-April to mid-November. 207-657-4977.