FAIRBANKS (AP) After a two-year hiatus that ended last summer, the animals of the Large Animal Research Station at the University of Alaska Fairbanks are open to the public again with new viewing pens, footpaths and tour guides.
Scientists have studied nutrition and behavioral patterns of northern ungulates at the university facility since 1979. Forty-two musk oxen live in the facility along with 37 reindeer and 26 caribou.
The spread of hoof-and-mouth disease within the United Kingdom in 2001 led to the closure of the Yankovich Road facility's public tour program. The virus, which is rarely fatal but seriously debilitating to hooved animals, can be carried by humans on clothing, shoes and a number of other materials.
The virus can survive without a host for more than two weeks more than enough time for an unsuspecting tourist carrying it to arrive in Fairbanks and visit the facility. And with more than 3,000 visitors touring the facility between June and September, the risk was too great to keep the gates open, said station supervisor Bill Hauer. Any infection within animal population would have required the destruction of all the animals at the facility.
When the virus scare abated just over a year ago, the station reopened its tour schedule on a limited basis.
Station administrators have since revamped the tour program, hiring staff specifically to give tours. Each guide is well-versed in both the animals' biology and history as well as the facility's history. In the past, tours were given by researchers in their spare time.
''That really fits people's schedules,'' Hauer said of the new tour guides. ''We can be running tours now and that doesn't have an impact on normal research operations.''
The facility also boasts a new gift shop and visitor pavilion. The estimated $60,000 in improvements was made possible in part by funds from Holland America Westours, Inc. The university matched Holland America's grant.
Planners hope to continue the improvements over the next decade, with the main goal being the construction of a visitor's center.
Coral Howe, the facility's community outreach coordinator, noted that several visitors have asked for a wider range of tours and times. Some of the newer tours will begin after July 4. Those will include an after-hours tour at 6:30 p.m. on Wednesdays, Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays and a youth-oriented tour seven days a week at 11 a.m.
There is another major difference in the visitor program admission prices have nearly doubled. The fee is now $10 for adults, $9 for senior citizens and $6 for students. There is no charge for children ages 6 and under.
''We've kind of had to get realistic about what we were charging,'' Hauer said. ''You're getting a very in-depth discussion of the animals, so we feel it's well worth it.''
Both Hauer and Howe agree that reaching out to the public and showing what the research station is accomplishing is crucial.
''We're trying to interface with the public and let them know what's going on out here,'' Hauer said. ''It surprises me every year on tours to run into local people who had no idea this was out here.''
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