We almost couldn't imagine wanting to head to Alaska in the middle of winter, except that's where you'll find Snickers the friendly porcupine.
Through his ridiculously photogenic love of cuddles and corn on the cob, Snickers serves as an ambassador for all the conservation efforts and four-legged creatures at the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center -- including a small herd of bison that will be the first such mammals to roam the United States wild in over 100 years.
Snickers was first picked up as a wee porcupette by a local firewood harvester.
"The man took him home and Snickers lived with his family and even slept with his children!" says Scott Michaelis, AWCC's spokesman. "However, it is illegal to take an animal from the wild, so the Alaska Department of Fish and Game transferred the porcupine to AWCC."
That happened in 2007. Snickers, who's about 7 now, has been at the AWCC's 200-acre sanctuary outside Anchorage ever since.
There, on a typical day, this little prickler might be found up in a favorite tree or snacking on corn, peanuts and fruit. He might be spotted demanding affection from his favorite (gloved) humans.
Or he might be nestling inside a traveling case for his day job. That involves visiting some 3,000 Anchorage-area school kids each year, to teach them about -- and get them excited about -- Alaska's animals and ecology.
"Snickers is very easy to get into his carrier, as he understands program days are ones full of his favorite foods!" Michaelis says. "Snickers does have a unique relationship that has developed with a number of staff here."
Snickers is far from alone at the center, and his landmates are worth the extra awareness. There are a couple hundred native Alaskan animals at AWCC, like lynx, moose, owls, and foxes. There's also a group of resident bears whose biographies make for fascinating reading.
Many were injured or orphaned, and are at the center for treatment and rehabilitation. When possible, the critters are released, so staff are careful not to make those who aren't there for the long run too habituated to humans during their stays.
AWCC also plays host to 140 wood bison. They're said to be North America's largest land animal -- males can exceed 2,000 pounds -- and at one point it was thought they'd gone extinct. Then they reappeared in Canada, which now has thousands in the wild, though far less than the almost 170,000 wood bison that roamed around before hunting and bad weather slimmed the population.
Thirteen of the Canadian wood bison were donated to AWCC in 2003. They've grown into the herd that lives there today -- but won't all be living there long. At the end of March, after years of negotiation with the state authorities, much of the herd is due to be dispatched back into Alaska's wilds.
"Once reintroduced, Alaska -- and furthermore the United States -- will again have wild wood bison for the first time in well over the last 100 years!" says Michaelis.
It's awesome, to be sure. As is snuggly, corn-loving Snickers, who will be at the AWCC for the rest of his life, hanging around with his favorite people. In turn, it's hoped that by being so pointedly cute, Snickers will keept getting the world interested in Alaska's other animals, as well.
"Snickers is definitely one of the biggest personalities we have at AWCC," says Michaelis. "Where permanent residency has been established, our caretakers can be quite hands-on, especially if there is a chance to develop an educational program around the wildlife enabling the wildlife to become an ambassador for their wild counterparts.
"Caring for the injured and orphaned wildlife of Alaska is a privilege we are proud to carry on."
Keep tabs on Snickers, the wood bison and all the other amazing animals at the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center on the group's Facebook page.
Get in touch at firstname.lastname@example.org if you know a special porcupine, or have another animal story to share!