GRAY — Call it the reverse pandemic 15: After a year of skipping the bear kibble treats tossed by visitors — up to 10 pounds a day, dispensed one quarter at a time — the Maine Wildlife Park’s two 27-year-old bears have hardly looked better.

“They’ve had the healthiest poop they’ve had in 20 years,” Superintendent Howie Powell said.

The park opens for the season Thursday with a new bear-feeding philosophy — all-day kibble is out, occasional carrots are in — expanded hours, a reservation system and, soon, mobile turtle exhibits that will feature its oldest animal, an 80-something-year-old Blanding’s turtle found in Franklin County.

An 80-plus-year-old Blanding’s turtle is the oldest at the Maine Wildlife Park in Gray. On the state endangered species list, she was found in Franklin County. Andree Kehn/Sun Journal Buy this Photo

It’s home to more than 30 species and more than 80 animals, including popular mountain lions, eagles and moose.

The season got off to a late start last year due to COVID-19, opening in June, and visitor numbers were down markedly: 51,000 in 2020 compared to 129,000 in 2019.

For a facility that relies on ticket sales and runs without state funding, it made for a tough year, Powell said, but he was happy to open at all, even with limited numbers allowed in, to give people an outdoor outlet.

“Nobody had any place to go, things were closed, we very much made a conscious decision to open as much for public good as much as anything else,” he said. “Financially, it was not a great decision, but it worked out really well.”

This year, the park is opening with a reservation system at least temporarily in place: Visitors can reserve one of 18

slots every half-hour between 9:30 a.m. and 4 p.m., with each slot accommodating up to 10 people in the same pandemic bubble.

This year, evening hours are being added Thursdays and Fridays between Memorial Day and Labor Day with the last reservations between 6 and 6:30 p.m. On those days, the park closes at 8 p.m.

“(It’s a) different demographic,” Powell said. “Some people have a hard time getting here with work; we thought it would give people enough time to come after work.”

The visitors’ center and nocturnal animal house will be closed for at least the first five weeks, but the hatchery, which was closed last year, will be open, he said.

Hours for the nature store and snack shack have also been extended to match the park hours with safety precautions being taken at both.

“We have a hundred COVID signs that we put up, some buildings are one group at a time,” Powell said. “(We have) one-way travel on lots of paths, trying to facilitate social distancing throughout the park. Trying to make it so we get as many people as we can, and safely.”

Staff try to open the Maine Wildlife Park with something new each year, but 2021 wasn’t the year for that, he said.

Mountain lions are a featured attraction at the Maine Wildlife Park in Gray. Andree Kehn/Sun Journal Buy this Photo

“Instead of building new things, we want to make sure that everything we have here on the property and for the animals we have, we want to step back and make sure we’re doing what we already have perfectly,” Powell said.

Over the winter, eagles got new perches and a revamped pond. Turtles that had lived in the visitors’ center are moving onto the mobile displays to get more sun and fresh air.

“Some are missing legs,” he said. “One of them is a snapping turtle that can’t stay on the correct plane — you put him in the tank and he flips himself over a lot. There’s a big old snapping turtle that would eat the other turtles if you put them in the turtle pond.”

The bears’ diet, too, has gotten a refresh, Powell said. Initially, the bear kibble feeders were closed last year due to the pandemic since the machines created a frequently touched surface for guests.

But as the months went on, he was surprised to see the “significant uptick in their health not having that — it was an amazing uptick to us.”

“I don’t know if it’s the stress of sitting there waiting for it; it’s the same thing that we actually feed them some of at night,” he said. “But for some reason, not having that pounded to them all day made such an impact on their gut health.”

A grey fox waits for visitors Wednesday at the Maine Wildlife Park in Gray. The park opens for the season Thursday. Andree Kehn/Sun Journal Buy this Photo

The smaller black bear, who has arthritis, moved around better. The larger cinnamon phase black bear looked good, too, even after having a front toe removed due to a growth.

“It was a hard thing to say no to because it’s a big stream of income, that quarter machine made us quite a lot of money,” Powell said. “It was such an attraction, but I don’t see how knowing what we know now we could continue to do so. That will make a lot of people unhappy, it’s their favorite thing to do.”

Instead, staff will now visit the bear enclosure twice a day and toss food, likely carrots, to draw the pair out and about.

The park’s youngest resident is a 2-year-old white porcupine. It’s a good thing that there are no new residents this season, he said. It speaks to the park’s mission.

“The reason we have an animal is that there’s an animal that can’t go back to the wild,” he said. “Because of what we stand for and the way we deal with non-rehabilitateable animals, not taking animals from the wild, a lot of people who don’t like zoos tend to like our mission a lot better. For a place that’s not state-funded, I think we do a real nice job of leaving some ambassador species for people to learn about.”

Related Headlines


Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.