How To Do the Alaska Zoo
Here’s my Alaska Zoo elevator pitch for visitors to Anchorage: It’s rustic, intimate, and it’s home primarily to animals native to Alaska and other northern climates — there’s not a giraffe or flamingo in sight.
And best of all, it’s where animals come for a second chance. Eighty percent of Alaska Zoo residents arrived after being injured or orphaned, according to executive director Pat Lampi.
The zoo is carved into 23 acres (soon to be 32 acres) of boreal forest off O’Malley Drive in south Anchorage.
A trip to the zoo is truly a walk through the woods. A wooden footbridge crosses Little Campbell Creek, wooden mileposts point the way to exhibits, and gravel trails meander past musk oxen, wolverines and Dall sheep. Some of the trails are steep enough to merit caution signs.
Most exhibits include signs that tell an animal's origin story. You’ll learn that a black bear arrived from Girdwood in 1999, two river otters came from Egegik in 2012 and three Sitka black-tailed deer hail from Southeast Alaska (Haines in 2013, Sitka in 2016 and Petersburg in 2022).
When I made my first visit in 1986, the Sitka deer were an arm’s-reach away; I often fed them grass through the bars.
At times, the zoo has been a bit too intimate. In the summer of 1994, Binky the polar bear made headlines a couple of times when visitors breached barriers to his enclosure. In one instance, a touristvisitor with a camera climbed over two waist-high rails, and Binky reached through the bars and grabbed her by the leg. The tourist wound up with a broken leg; Binky wound up with a sneaker that he carried around for a couple of days before zoo workers managed to take it away.
Upgraded security means you can’t feed the deer or venture dangerously close to the bears anymore. But there are still thrills to be found.
This year as autumn approached, “Please Don’t Encourage Me!” signs were posted at the musk ox enclosure, warning that during mating season the resident bull, named Little Rock, might charge the fence if provoked. Scant encouragement is needed to elicit Little Rock’s speed and fury, and it’s sort of scary to witness from just a few feet away.
Alaska's only zoo is home to Alaska animals like caribou, harbor seals, lynx, river otters, moose, ravens, ermine, bald eagles, tundra swans and three kinds of bears — polar, brown and black. There are 91 animals representing 42 species, Lampi said, and if they aren’t from Alaska, they’re almost all cold-weather animals.
Which leads us to the elephant in the room.
The Alaska Zoo got its start in 1966 when an Anchorage grocer won a nationwide contest to see which store could sell the most Crown Zellerbach tissue paper. The prize was $3,000 or a baby elephant, and Jack Snyder surprised everyone by picking the elephant.
Snyder found a home for 2-year-old Annabelle at the Diamond H horse ranch in south Anchorage. Owner Sammye Seawall had already taken in an orphaned harbor seal named Oley, and one of her horse stalls was heated, so offering shelter to an Asian elephant seemed reasonable.
A couple of years later, Alaska State Troopers dropped off an orphaned black bear cub named Tuffy, and in 1969 the Alaska Zoo opened next door to Seawall's ranch. Annabelle, Oley and Tuffy were among the original residents.
In the years before her death in 1997, Annabelle made it big as an artist. She painted canvases with brushes dipped in paint by zookeepers, who thought the activity would stave off boredom.
Annabelle was a natural talent, and by 1991 she had produced enough art to merit an exhibit with a wine-and-cheese reception.
A friend and I went, each with $50 in our pocket, thinking that would be enough to buy a small print or poster. We were crushed when we saw that only the canvases were for sale, starting at $250.
We sipped wine and nibbled on cheese as we ooh’d and ahh’d at the paintings. “You know,” I told my friend, “they’re already framed, and that can cost a hundred dollars right there.”
We sipped more wine and kept ooh-ing and ahh-ing. We overheard a woman exclaim, “It’s so inexpensive for elephant art!” and our eyes widened with wonder and desire.
We sipped a little more wine. “We have our credit cards in the car,” my friend said. “And the wine is free,” I said.
We both left with original Annabelles. Mine still hangs in a prominent spot in my living room.
IF YOU GO:
The Alaska Zoo (alaskazoo.org) is located at 4731 O’Malley Drive.
Open every day except Thanksgiving and Christmas. Hours vary by season.
Admission is $20 for adults ($17 for Alaska residents), $15 for seniors, $10 for ages 3-17, free for children 2 and under.
The gravel trails are maintained year-round. A single non-motorized, all-terrain wheelchair equipped with studded tires is available on a first-come basis. Rental is $25 for 2.5 hours.
There’s a gift shop, a coffee shop with a limited menu, and a small playground with nearby picnic tables.
New at the zoo: Nine acres of adjacent land acquired from the Diamond H ranch; executive director Pat Lampi said plans for expansion are in progress. Also new: A polar bear cub named Kova, who is being introduced to the habitat she’ll share with Cranberry, and an opossum named Grubby, who arrived in Homer this summer as a stowaway on a shipping container from Washington.