By Marit Gookin

Staff Writer

Sinks Canyon State Park employee Tucker Stevens held Maddy at the visitor center last week. Maddy is one of the park’s two educational ferrets. Submitted photo.

The Sinks Canyon Visitor Center has been working on changing things up a little – reorganizing, moving displays around and, of course, installing cages and terrariums for the park’s new educational animals. Earlier this year, Sinks Canyon State Park acquired two ferrets, a wandering garter snake, a bull snake, and a Western tiger salamander. The animals are now on display in the visitor center, to help educate the public about local wildlife in a more interactive way.

“It inspires kids,” commented park employee Rose Rajkumar. “They get so excited, they’re interested and want to learn more about them.” 

Sinks Canyon State Park isn’t the first organization in Lander to use animals to help educate the public and get them excited about wildlife; the Lander Game and Fish office has had an educational owl named Jupiter for many years now, who has even become something of a minor local celebrity. Animals are a proven educational tool, helping people put what they learn in classrooms and textbooks into the context of a real, living creature they can interact with. 

While none of the park’s animals are pets, the two ferrets are “kind of a rescue,” Rajkumar explained. They had two previous homes, and even had to be surrendered at one point. Now, the ferrets live with their handler – one of the park’s interpretative rangers, Angelina Stancampiano – at night, and spend their days scampering around and sleeping in the extensive system of hammocks and ladders in their cage at the visitor center. 

The animals are already proving to be a draw for visitors and locals alike. “People come here at 9 a.m. to see the ferrets while they’re the most active,” observed park employee Tucker Stevens. “They sleep 20 hours a day … they’re diurnal.” 

“I find that people really, really gravitate to either the ferrets or the snakes,” added Rajkumar. “It’s pretty nice to have both.” 

The garter snake was caught in Sinks Canyon; the bull snake and the salamander both came from breeders. Park employees have named the two ferrets Maddy (after Madison Limestone) and Sandy (after sandstone) in honor of Sinks Canyon’s intriguing geology. The snakes and the salamander have yet to be named; Rajkumar and Stevens said that the park may decide to ask the rest of Wyoming’s state park system for input on what to name them. 

While all of the park’s animals have educational value, the different animals serve different roles. One of the important functions Maddy and Sandy serve is to be ambassadors for their distant relatives, black-footed ferrets; considered to be something of an ongoing success story of species recovery efforts, black-footed ferrets were thought to be extinct prior to their rediscovery in Meeteetse in the 1980s. Although the species has continued to face challenges over the years and is still endangered, its population has grown from about 100 to more than 1,000 over thirty years of concerted efforts by biologists, land managers and land owners. Continuing to educate Wyomingites about this species is an important step in keeping it on the path to recovery, and Maddy and Sandy are a great way to get the public talking about ferrets. 

The snakes, meanwhile, help introduce people to snakes in a controlled environment. “I think that’s really important,” noted Stevens, “teaching people that you don’t need to be afraid of snakes.” Garter snakes and bull snakes are both relatively harmless species. Steven also explained that bull snakes and rattlesnakes look very similar at first glance, so teaching the public how to tell the difference can help people avoid the latter and know not to be overly concerned about encountering the former. 

Having a salamander gives the park an opportunity to talk to the public about Wyoming’s important riparian areas, and the research being done into Wyoming’s amphibians. “You don’t see them very often, but they are there and they are important to the ecosystem,” Stevens said. 

While there aren’t any plans to acquire more animals in the immediate future, and the animals will be sent elsewhere for the season when the visitor center closes down for the winter, Rajkumar and Stevens didn’t rule out the possibility that there may be even more animals coming to the visitor center in the future. 

“I know that [Park Superintendent Jessica Moore] has a lot of plans for the future,” Stevens commented. 

For now, the animals are at the visitor center every day it’s open – except on days when a park employee takes one of them to visit a local school.