If you still have your Christmas tree up, there’s a good chance your floor looks similar to the ground in the Alaska Zoo’s tiger den or the moose pasture at the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center: covered in pine or spruce needles.
For several years, both the zoo and the conservation center have invited Alaskans to donate their Christmas trees to animals after the holiday season is over.
Sarah Howard, curator at the conservation center, said the animals love them.
“One of my favorite memories was watching Arnold the moose look at his first Christmas tree,” Howard said. “It was like seeing a little kid fall in love with the most amazing toy they’ve ever seen. He had googly eyes.”
The trees give the animals “enrichment,” a veterinary term for entertainment that helps animals satisfy physical and psychological needs. It’s particularly important for animals in human care.
While Arnold the moose may simply nibble on the trees, other conservation center animals interact with them differently. Staff and visitors have filmed the conservation center’s elk a few pens down bobbing the trees between their antlers like a hot potato and the wolves playing tug of war.
At the zoo, the tigers like to roll on the branches, the lynx play hide-and-seek under the boughs and musk ox stomp on the needles as a way to scratch their feet, according to curator Shannon Jensen.
In the wild, the animals would spend much of their day hunting for food or escaping predators, but that’s less of a worry to animals in the care of zoos and wildlife preserves. Enrichment helps keep the animals from getting bored and listless.
“We can’t just put them in a big field and say ‘that’s good enough,’ because it’s not good enough,” Howard said. “Animals need to be stimulated. We as caretakers need to give them something to think about, something to do.”
Christmas trees, Jensen said, are particularly good tools for enrichment because they can engage multiple senses. Beyond making a snack of them, many of the animals revel in the tactile experience of rolling on or rubbing up against the coniferous needles.
“I’m sure you can imagine that it provides a really good scratch,” Jensen said.
The novel smell is also exciting. Many of the animals like to try to cover up the odor with their own scent, which is a way they mark territory.
Often the hoofed animals, like musk ox and moose, will kick or toss the trees around. Smaller creatures, like wolverines, will tear the trees apart.
“Even just stomping on the trees is a form of play, and they do get a lot of enjoyment out of it,” Jensen said.
One of the conservation center animals that particularly enjoys the trees, Howard said, is a white wolf named Dirus. Wild wolves typically don’t play with sticks in the way that domesticated dogs might, she said. But Dirus will often drag a tree around the pen by the base.
“It’s really funny to watch these 6-foot-tall trees being carried around by a 100-pound wolf like it’s nothing,” Howard said. “He gets really excited about the trees and wants to make sure that he gets to keep possession of it.”
At some point, usually within a week or two, the animals do lose interest in the trees, and caretakers will remove what remains and introduce a new enrichment toy or activity.
“There are a lot of different ways to engage with the animals so they don’t get bored,” Howard said. “That’s our big task: finding ways to make sure that they love where they’re at.”
Donate your Christmas tree
The Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center will take trees during their current business hours, 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Friday through Monday, through the end of January. (Located just past Girdwood at Mile 79 of the Seward Highway; 907-783-0058)
The Alaska Zoo will take trees near the donation freezer in the lower parking lot from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m. (4731 O’Malley Road in Anchorage, 907-346-3242)
Both organizations ask that donors only bring real trees and take care to remove all ornaments, lights and tinsel before drop-off.