Behind the Scenes at Maine Wildlife Park with Curt Johnson

Wayne and I attended a Pow Wow at the Maine Wildlife Park this summer after which we spent some time exploring and looking at the animals. Unlike a zoo that operates for profit, the animals at the park cannot survive in the wild. It’s there that they are provided a safe forever home because they were injured, orphaned, or became human dependent while being raised illegally in captivity. The park is self-sustaining and owned and operated by the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife within the Division of Information and Education. Each animal becomes an ambassador for its species to help educate (and charm!) the public. It has a staff of thirty and over two hundred volunteers which includes retirees, college interns and during the off-season, inmates involved in correctional trade instruction. The inmates gain experience and can give back to the community by doing necessary tasks like painting, shoveling and maintaining wood furniture.

I contacted park Superintendent Curt Johnson about the possibility of volunteering next season. Since I’m always interested in learning more about people who work with and love wildlife I asked him after he interviewed me if I could interview him for my blog. Not only did he agree to it but he also offered me a rare opportunity to visit the park and see the animals after it had closed for the season! I felt so lucky and of course I accepted his generous offer!

Before I sat down with Curt for an interview, his assistant, Courtney gave me a personal tour. She transported me around the park on a golf cart to bring me to the animals I had requested to meet in a more up-close, personal way. Fortunately it was a nice day for November with the sun shining and temps well above freezing. Some of the animals like the bears were already asleep or in lazy mode (it happens to the best of us this time of year) and others were going to be moved the following week into their winter homes. Many of the animals are well equipped to stay where they are like the Canada Lynx.

My first request was to see Warren, the geriatric turkey vulture who is over forty years old. I have a soft spot for the less glamorous animals who could use a little extra fawning from the public.

Turkey Vulture Maine Wildlife Park (3)
Old man Warren
Turkey Vulture Maine Wildlife Park (1)
Warren looking very coy!

When we walked past the turkey enclosure Courtney pointed to the one who was sizing me up and down and giving me the side-eye. She explained that he liked to chase after people bringing food to the enclosure so she sometimes has to run interference. I hope I didn’t insult his bravado when I laughed.

Another park elder is Annie the moose who is now ten years old. She has such a sweet, gentle disposition.

Moose Maine Wildlife Park (1)

Moose Maine Wildlife Park (2)

Moose Maine Wildlife Park (4)

The oldest animal in the park is a Blanding’s turtle of a certain age I’m calling “Agatha” who is fifty plus years old. (I’ll never reveal the specifics of the “plus” part!).

Blanding's Turtle Maine Wildlife Park (1).jpg

Blanding's Turtle Maine Wildlife Park (3).jpg

She is an elegant lady who looks like she appreciates attention. Soon she will be wintering in the office refrigerator inside a special box filled with moss.

Bald Eagle Maine Wildlife Park (2)
Marilyn the bald eagle

Bald Eagle Maine Wildlife Park (3)

Marilyn fell from her nest as an eaglet and needed to have one of her wings amputated so she is unable to fly.

Some more animals I met:

Maine Wildlife Park Canada Lynx (1)
Canada Lynx
Maine Wildlife Park Canada Lynx (2)
Don’t worry, I was behind a fence when I took these photos!
Fisher Maine Wildlife Park.jpg
The Fisher is very animated!
Albino Porcupine Maine Wildlife Park (2)
The albino Racoon working the camera…
Albino Porcupine Maine Wildlife Park (3)
Can you stand the cuteness?!
Albino Porcupine Maine Wildlife Park (1)
I can’t even.

Before we returned to the office for my meeting with Curt I had asked to see the graveyard where they bury their deceased animals.

Maine Wildlife Park Cemetery (1)
Maine Wildlife Park Cemetery

Maine Wildlife Park Cemetery (2)

I love the idea that the animals are laid to rest there; it seems dignified and allows the staff and volunteers to pay their respects. Grave markers are made by volunteers.

Once back and inside the office which is equipped with a cast iron wood stove, employee snacks and taxidermy I sat down to speak with with Curt.

His childhood was spent on a farm in Houlton, Maine where his parents rented the land to other farmers. When not working for one of the potato farmers he spent many weekends and summers in the Allagash hiking, camping and hunting with his family.

“What about the bugs?!” I asked. Most Mainers knows how formidable the black flies can be during their open season on both people and animals. 

He referred to them and their ilk as “deep woods flies” and described their coordinated assaults including entry points like his nose and mouth. His solution? Enjoy the outdoors anyway, place rubber bands around your sleeves to prevent entry and spend as much time as possible out on the water. It was easy for me to understand why he would choose to work outdoors instead of a desk job in the corporate world. But the thing is, he actually started out working as a grocery manager!

“I got a degree in Business Administration and worked as a manager at Hannaford. It was dark when I left for work in the morning and dark when I drove back home.”

Curt knew he had to get back outdoors so he returned to school to major in Wildlife Ecology. After he earned his second degree he became a volunteer on a “bear crew” that was responsible for radio-collaring bears. He also was a moose tooth cutter! Each moose that a hunter brings in to be registered needs to have a tooth extracted to gather data.

“You can tell the age of a moose by the markings inside its teeth, very much like counting rings a tree.”

To prepare the tooth he had to scrape gum tissue.

“Were you kind of wishing you had stayed in the grocery business?”

“No! I loved every minute of it!”

The irony of all this is that when he learned of the job opening for Superintendent of the Maine Wildlife Park he had never even heard of it! Almost fifteen years later he still describes it as the perfect job for him where he can combine his passion for the outdoors and wildlife with his training in business to ensure all runs smoothly.

“I love the variety and constancy of different things happening.”

The park emphasizes the importance of not humanizing the wildlife so that kids and adults won’t think that a bear in the wild will react the same way as a more tame bear in the park that has had significant human interactions. The mission to is to educate the public about wildlife in its native habitat as best as they are able despite the animals being in human created enclosures.

I asked him if he loves the animals as if they are his own pets?

“Absolutely! Yes!”

The same is true for Courtney and the fellow who was feeding Annie her melon which had been lovingly cut into small pieces. Courtney had explained that much of her job involves food prep and other behind-the-scenes work to keep the animals fed and fortified. She shared with me how much she loves them and she was able to describe the quirks and personalities of each of the animals I saw.

I asked Curt if the park has ever done any work specifically with veterans with PTSD. I thought that Marilyn was a wonderful ambassador not just for bald eagles but for those with visible wounds and scars. It’s easy to see that Marilyn isn’t any less of an eagle or less majestic simply because she had one of her wings amputated. I was excited to learn that the park is partnering with the University of Massachusetts Medical School to take part in a PTSD study! From the school:

“There is increasing scientific evidence that interactions with animals provide positive human health benefits but most of the research has been done with pets and farm animals.  This study investigates whether experiences with wildlife may be beneficial in reducing PTSD symptoms for veterans who have suffered trauma as part of their military duty.  Findings from this study will advance scientific knowledge about the benefits of wildlife activities for veterans with PTSD including the acceptability, feasibility, safety and preliminary influence on physical and mental well-being.  These veterans will be visiting the Maine Wildlife Park to learn about wildlife care from our staff and observe different species of wildlife.”

I’ve shared on my blog how interacting with the chipmunks in my yard has helped with my PTSD in so many ways in which others things could not.

Several community organizations visit the park on a weekly basis to volunteer including the Pine Tree Society, Creative Trails, Work Opportunities, and Momentum. Some area businesses including Idexx, Proctor & Gamble, Key Bank, TD Bank, and others send employees to volunteer as part of their charitable work programs.

Curt Johnson.jpg
Maine Wildlife Park Superintendent Curt Johnson reading my book!

Back to my own interest in volunteering I’m beyond thrilled that Curt invited me to read my book Wishy the Bookworm Chipmunk during Story Hour at the park next season! It’s the perfect place to generate an interest in chipmunks and backyard wildlife.

The Maine Wildlife Park reopens next April. They also sell photo passes during the winter and next season if you would like to get up-close photos similar to the ones on my blog. It’s a magical experience! For volunteer opportunities or to make a donation visit Friends of the Wildlife Park.

Thank you again, Curt and Courtney for such a special look at the park!

4 thoughts on “Behind the Scenes at Maine Wildlife Park with Curt Johnson

      1. I haven’t heard of this particular story, but I have heard of animals “knowing” something was seriously wrong with their babies and abandoning them to die. Maybe a baby would be friendly for a while, but adult moose aren’t typically sociable. At least the ones I’ve been around aren’t. 😂 My grandpa and one of his daughters got chased up a tree once. A cousin on the police force was late for work because two had him pinned in his house.
        You did a good job with this piece, Averyl. Curt and his crew are brave souls.
        I laughed out loud when you asked about the flies. Nobody ever mentions those blood sucking torments in their camping stories. One night in the open and I’m ready to bring back DDT! ❤️

        Like

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