Sarah Howard said her mission seemed fairly simple: Fly from Alaska to New Jersey and return with a 40-pound wolverine. But the wolverine had other plans.
Howard, a 26-year-old from Girdwood, sat in Newark Liberty International Airport on Tuesday afternoon waiting for Kasper, a 1-year-old male wolverine. Kasper's journey started at a zoo in Norway and would end at the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center in Portage, where Howard works as the intern program coordinator.
In between, Kasper had an overnight layover in Newark. There, airline employees noticed a hole in his crate.
About 15 minutes after Kasper landed, Howard said, she received a phone call from a woman who told her, "You need to come here right now. Your wolverine is getting out."
Kasper, it turned out, had chewed a sizable hole in his aluminum-lined plywood crate. As the box left the airplane on a conveyor belt, Howard said, airline employees saw his head and neck sticking out of it.
"Wolverines are escape artists," she said. "If he had had more time he would have probably done more damage."
After phone calls to Port Authority of New York and New Jersey police, Howard was allowed onto the runway. An airline employee covered the hole with a piece of rubber and used a strap to hold it in place, she said.
"Then it became a game of trying to call everyone under the sun," Howard said. She had to find a new crate that could hold a wolverine.
Eventually, she got in touch with Bronx Zoo officials, who agreed to lend a metal crate they use to transfer snow leopards and other big cats. Zoo employees drove to the airport.
Meanwhile, Howard said, she was joined by at least 15 Port Authority police officers.
While not exceptionally large animals, wolverines, the biggest members of the weasel family, have a reputation for ferocity, Howard said. "They have an attitude of a 1,000-pound grizzly bear."
Police wanted to move Kasper into a secured and empty building before transferring him into another crate.
That's how Howard found herself riding in a police car behind a transport van carrying the wolverine. In front of them were more police cars. In the back, two large vans.
"And I'm not kidding -- it was like a presidential escort," she said.
Upon arrival, Kasper growled and hissed. They fed him fresh roast beef. Kasper rolled onto his back and put his paws in the air, Howard said. He made it clear he was not moving, she said.
The decision was made to tranquilize Kasper and move him into the new crate.
"About 20 minutes later he was up and moving and growling," Howard said. "Everybody calmed down and mission accomplished."
Howard returned to her hotel room around 1 a.m. Wednesday and by 4 a.m. returned to the airport.
By 8 p.m., Howard was at her home in Girdwood and Kasper was in a 12-by-12-foot crate at the wildlife center. He will get acclimated there and eventually move onto 3 to 5 acres of property, said Mike Miller, the center's executive director.
Miller said he has waited a long time for a wolverine. The Kristiansand Zoo in Norway donated Kasper to the center about two months ago. A female will soon arrive from Sweden, Miller said.
"I have been wanting to acquire a wolverine for 20 years," he said. "People think that wood bison is my favorite species of animals, but they are wrong."
Like a proud, anxious father, Miller has the future of the wolverines laid out.
He expects Kasper and the female wolverine to mate. He said the wildlife center has hired a professional trainer to teach the offspring to do search and rescue for buried avalanche victims.
While that is years away, Howard was able to sum up her week in two words: "Holy schnikes."