GRAY — The black bears don't want to be bothered while they're sleeping. The mountain lion likes to sit by himself in the sun.
But when the pair of moose catch sight of someone walking through the Maine Wildlife Park in the middle of winter, they lope right over to say hi. The park might shut down for the season, but the animals stick around. And at least a couple are happy to have guests.
"They get kind of lonely in the winter, they're so used to people," education coordinator Lisa Kane said. "In the winter, they're like, 'Visitors, yay!'"
Run by the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife, the Gray park is home to about 100 animals from 30 different species. Almost every species is native to the region, though not every animal came from Maine. Many of them arrived at the park injured or orphaned. Several were illegal pets or were "rescued" by well-meaning people who didn't realize the baby animal didn't actually need help.
The park gets 100,000 visitors a year between April and November. Over the winter, it virtually shuts down. Except for the four full-time employees who care for residents, and individual photographers who buy special passes to tour the facility and get close-up photos, the place is pretty much animals-only.
Some hibernate over the season. The park's woodchuck burrows into a den in his enclosure to sleep away the winter in a near coma. The park's box and wood turtles hibernate, too, but since they're endangered (box turtles) or of special concern (wood turtle), they sleep in a special safe haven all their own — the park office's refrigerator.
Other animals don't hibernate, exactly, but they do sleep through much of the winter. The park's three black bears pile into their dens at the end of November or the beginning of December and sleep until March or April, sometimes waking on warm or sunny days to look sleepily around their enclosure before bedding down again.
Most of the park's residents stay awake through the coldest months of the year. Birds move to an unheated barn-like enclosure where they can stay out of the elements but still enjoy southern exposure. Each species has its own stall with its own amenities. The peregrine falcon gets a heat lamp; the red-tailed hawks get a sunroom.
"They love to sit out in the sun," Kane said.
Across the park, the Canada lynx, mountain lions and foxes hang around their regular enclosures for the season. They're animals built for the winter. Though on one recent cold day, Bob, the park's 17-year-old mountain lion, sat on top of his boulders and shivered. Workers had set him up with a warm den thickly lined with hay, but he preferred lounging in the sun, even if that meant braving the cold.
The park's moose, George and Annie, are also built for the winter. Although their 3-acre pen includes a shelter, they rarely use it.
"If we have four feet of snow, they'd much rather just lay in the snow," Kane said.
But unlike the birds, who skitter away from visitors, or the lynx, who's more interested in lunchtime than people, the moose get excited when someone drops by. Sure, their Mazuri moose chow is enticing, but they're more interested in company.
George, who isn't quite aware he has antlers, sometimes gets his head stuck when he pokes it through the feeding station door to greet employees.
During the summer, the park is run by 16 workers, plus 150 volunteers. In the winter that drops down to just four full-time employees. They feed the animals once a day, keep the moose pen mud free and make sure Bob the elderly mountain lion is doing all right.
And sometimes stop to give George and Annie a soft pat on the nose.
"They obviously stay out all winter long. They're moose. They're acclimated to Maine," Kane said.
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