Station Expands Animal Tours

This story appeared in the July 3, 2003 Fairbanks Daily News-Miner and was updated in April 2007. By Tom DeLaune

They're back in black, or rather brownish, shaggy coats. After a two-year hiatus that ended last summer, the Robert G. White Large Animal Research Station of the Institute of Arctic Biology at University of Alaska Fairbanks is open to the public and the tours are "bigger and better than ever," said station supervisor Bill Hauer.

With new viewing pens, footpaths and tour guides, LARS has made a full return this summer to public tours of the research station, where scientists have studied nutrition and behavioral patterns of northern ungulates (a Latin word meaning "provided with hoofs") since 1979.

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 vessels.

It can survive without a host for over two weeks, more than enough time for an unsuspecting tourist carrying the virus to arrive in Fairbanks and visit LARS. And with more than 3,000 visitors touring the facility between June and September, the risk was too great to keep the gates open, Hauer said. Any infection within LARS' 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 the travel company Holland America Westours, Inc. The university matched Holland America's grant and LARS will have to pay that sum back over the next few years. Planners at the station 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. LARS is offering daily 30- and 60-minute tours that will begin on Memorial Day and extend to Labor Day. Check here for current schedule.

The hour-long tour fee is now $10 for adults, $9 for senior citizens, and $6 for students. The mini-tour is only $6 for adults. There is no charge for children ages 6 and under.

Both Hauer and Howe agree that reaching out to the public and showing what LARS is accomplishing through research 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."