Telling Alaska’s Story: Zoo vet says he’s held his ‘dream job’ for 3 decades

Published: Nov. 29, 2021 at 6:10 PM AKST
Email This Link
Share on Pinterest
Share on LinkedIn

ANCHORAGE, Alaska (KTUU) - Riley Wilson describes it as the dream job he’s held for more than 35 years. At the end of December, Wilson will retire from his role as head veterinarian for the Alaska Zoo, as well as from his private practice at The Pet Stop clinic in South Anchorage.

Wilson has cared for hundreds of animals since he joined the zoo in 1986, and built a special relationship with many of them. On a recent wintry day, Wilson paused at the seal exhibit and said hello to Cleo, a harbor seal that spent the first few days of her life in a hot tub at Wilson’s home.

“We kept her in there to keep her safe, and I could give her baths easy and I just tube fed her out there,” Wilson said. “So she stayed at our house for a couple days before she came out here, and that was 22 years ago I think.”

But the animal that has played the most exciting part in Wilson’s long career is the polar bear. In addition to caring for the bears that have come through the zoo, Wilson has also played a part in helping scientists understand more about the species and the impacts of climate change.

Starting in 2015 and for the next three years, Wilson was invited to accompany a team of researchers from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to learn more about the bears that roam the Chukchi Sea.

“They’re probably the most easily recognized indicator species for Alaska climate change because everyone thinks polar bears,” he said. “And their impact is going to be noticed more quickly because they need ice to hunt more effectively, and the ice conditions are changing really rapidly.”

Wilson joined crews working from helicopters sometimes 100 miles from shore. Biologists would dart the bears, land, then weigh and measure them. Wilson helped draw blood and extract a single tooth that could tell the bear’s age. He showed researchers how to do it without causing the sedated bears any additional pain.

“Before, they’d be kind of chomping their teeth ‘cause they feel it. And you know, when you have a thousand-pound bear kind of chomping at your hands, when your hands were in their mouth, it was a little better for them not to notice it,” he said. “So just a few other little subtle things that I would be able to see made them feel more comfortable.”

Wilson said COVID-19 and thinning ice conditions have kept crews from doing polar bear research in the Chukchi for the last three years, but the work may resume in a new location in September. If it does, Wilson hopes he’ll be a part of it.

“When you go to vet school you don’t anticipate being able to do something that amazing,” he said. “And there isn’t an animal that I’d rather work on.”

Copyright 2021 KTUU. All rights reserved.