By Adam Hocking
MARSHFIELD — It is understandable why Marshfield Zookeeper Steve Burns has a twinkle in his eye these days. It could be because he is now the overseer of an expansive $1.3 million new bear exhibit; its Kodiak bear inhabitants; and a trio of new, young wolves.
It could also simply be that he is tired.
Burns is the sole fulltime employee at the zoo. And while he is excited about the major new attractions, they also mean he is busier than usual.
“It’s hard to just walk around the zoo these days with the number of people in the zoo, which is awesome. That’s why we did it,” Burns said. Caring for the bears and their enclosure adds about an hour of work to Burns’ daily schedule. Burns is aided at the zoo by an assistant zookeeper and some city staff.
Bringing the animals to Marshfield
Prior to breaking ground on the J.P. Adler Family Kodiak Bear Exhibit, Burns reached out to state agencies across the country, asking that if a bear was orphaned or became a nuisance to the public, that Wildwood Zoo be considered a destination for the animal. Alaska in particular was “really receptive from the very beginning,” Burns said.
“We don’t hope that animals will become orphaned, but I knew from past experience that it’s inevitable, it’s going to happen, and we might as well move forward with the thought in mind that, that’s probably how we’re going to acquire bears,” Burns said. Wildwood’s new bears, Munsey and Boda, were orphaned when their mother was illegally shot.
The wolves, which will be named via contest put on by the Wildwood Zoological Society, were acquired from the Wild World of Animals in Pennsylvania, which is a “traveling education show,” Burns said.
“They take their animals offsite to (for example) ‘The Today Show,’” Burns said. However, these particular wolves seemed to be stressed by that lifestyle, so they became available for Wildwood Zoo.
Burns said that the wolves were still anxious in their new Marshfield home, but he expects them to relax with time as they grow accustomed to their approximately 1-acre enclosure.
A new generation for Wildwood
Munsey and Boda are about 9-10 months old, and the wolf siblings are 2 ½ years old.
“I have a young 2 ½-year-old (son), … and I know that he’s going to kind of grow with these animals and have this relationship similar to (how) a whole generation of Marshfield residents grew up with (former Wildwood grizzly bear) Ms. Grizz, and now I think there’s going to be another generation that grows up with these bears and these wolves,” Burns said.
He added that if people can get excited about these new animals and care about them, then the zoo provides an educational purpose in addition to entertainment.
“It’s that attachment that we’re trying to foster because people care about conserving a species that they can directly relate to,” Burns said.
Wildwood Zoo is going through a revival of sorts after a period in which it had no bears and — for a brief time — no wolves.
“We had an aging population of animals here at the zoo,” Burns said. “There inevitably had to be this turnover. … I think the zoo is certainly moving in the right direction with a reinvestment in exhibits and the animals we have in them.”
Burns noted that while the money raised for the bear exhibit could have gone to frills like adding an adjacent restaurant or welcome center, it was instead invested in making the best, most natural environment possible for Munsey and Boda.
“I think we spent money on a lot of smart things like giving the animals just space,” Burns said. He added that he thinks the system used for the water features in the new bear exhibit may make Wildwood the first zoo to use plant filtration. Water gets pumped through a system of plant roots, which filters out solids.
“I think if people see what we were able to do with their donations on the bear exhibit, that might snowball into other projects around the zoo that we feel need work,” Burns said. One of those projects could be an expansion of the current mountain lion exhibit.
“They’re next. We want to take care of the animals in the exhibits that we already have, and obviously we can do better with the mountain lions. So now that the bear exhibit’s behind us, … we can significantly improve that (mountain lion) exhibit.”
Burns said that while he does not anticipate a project as grandiose as the bear exhibit for the mountain lions, strides can be made toward building a better enclosure. In all likelihood, Burns said, the mountain lion project would be an addition to the current exhibit, and supporting funds would be largely raised privately. The mountain lions, who are brother and sister, are 7 years old, and Burns said they can expect to live into their 20s.
A word about keeping wild animals confined
Along with all of the excitement over new bears and wolves, there has been some sentiment, on social media especially, that animals deserve to be free, not caged.
“They certainly have that right to think that because … the natural habitat of a wild animal is the wild. But for all the animals here at the zoo, we like to think of them as ambassadors for their species,” Burns said. “All the birds at the zoo are wild birds that were injured and couldn’t be released back to the wild, so they have two options: They can be euthanized, or they can come to a zoo where they can inspire people to learn more about them, to care about their wild counterparts.”
Burns added that the bears, save for a short period of time when they are being fed or their exhibit is being cleaned, are free to come and go as they please, inside to their den or outside to the exhibit.