Fine dining at its best; Alaskan zoo animals get natural foods

The wolves pace back and forth in their chain-link pens, wagging their tails, jumping and rattling the metal with their paws. They cast furtive glances at the zookeepers.

It's carcass day.

When the gates open, the six canines dash for the meat in the snowy enclosure. A 115-pound black wolf, Denali, goes for the biggest prize -- a mass of bones and flesh. A skinnier, skittish one, Ruby, lets the others go first then settles for a small piece. All grab their chunks of caribou, moose and deer and start to rip.

The Alaska Zoo has been inundated this autumn with hunting leftovers. Pickup trucks came and left behind plastic garbage bags full of trimmings, sinew and Flintstone-size meaty bones. For Anchorage hunters, the zoo is a much-appreciated dumping ground. For the state's best-known zoo, the donations provide a source of enrichment for the tigers, bears, lynx and other carnivores, and for some, like the wolves, it even supplies a source of social order.

In a time when the zoo is repositioning itself as a cold-climate conservation park after years of controversy housing an African elephant, the food is important to the natural environment goal. (The board recently refocused the zoo's mission statement on the conservation of arctic, sub-arctic and like-climate species.)

"Simulating natural things that they would be doing in the wild is great," said zoo director Pat Lampi.

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