GRAY, Maine -- On this walk in the woods, you are guaranteed to see wildlife, and possibly go eye-to-eye with a yearling moose, hear a snow-white peacock scream, or find yourself one bad whiff away from a red fox or porcupine.
Welcome to the Maine Wildlife Park, home to 30 species that are, or once were, native to the wilds of the state. The secluded 243-acre park, less than five miles off the Maine Turnpike in the threadbare town of Gray (population 7,200), includes roughly 40 acres of exhibits and two miles of nature trails and is the only state-run wildlife park in New England.
Think of it as a wild and woolly zoo.
''We're not a big zoo. . . . We're just this fun little place, this little walk-in-the-woods place," says education coordinator Maureen Gilbert, 34. ''We provide an opportunity to see animals up close that you normally wouldn't get to see."
Owned and cared for by the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries & Wildlife, the 101 inhabitants in the park were orphaned, injured, raised in captivity at other zoos, or confiscated by game wardens from people illegally keeping them as pets.
The dedicated staff members -- who give names to their favorite animals -- recount stories like the one about George, the young moose now sprouting velvet antlers, whose mother swam across the St. John River, leaving her offspring behind. They tell of the musk turtle with a cracked shell that was fitted with a fiberglass patch, and how Charlie, an old black bear, was snatched from a gutted school bus as a cub.
''We don't want them here," insists Lisa Kane, 47, natural science educator at Fisheries & Wildlife who oversees the operation. ''We want them to live wild lives."
Ungainly moose -- a Maine icon, along with lobsters and puffins -- are hard to keep in captivity because they eat young twigs, leaves, and shoots and have delicate digestive tracts, but George and the two adult moose are decidedly the biggest draw in this boreal refuge.
''They look like a conglomeration of a bunch of different animals," Kane says, referring to the moose. ''Skinny legs. Big bodies. Big, long Roman noses. Odd-shaped heads. The big hump in the back. No tail." These biggest members of the deer family are also North America's largest land mammal.
Third-grader Megan Salisbury, on an outing recently with local Brownie Troop No. 126 from the Kennebec Council, stood wide-eyed, sizing up the playful, year-old bobcats. Even in captivity here, the circle of life remains unbroken: Carnivores like the bobcats are fed furred road kill and rabbits and mice donated by medical research facilities.
''They're pretty," said Megan, a redheaded, freckle-faced 8-year-old. ''They have short tails. They're not very tall, but they're taller than a regular kitty."
The Eastern cougar and Canada lynx, federally endangered and threatened, respectively, and the box turtle, a Maine endangered species, are the only endangered and threatened species currently at the park.
The fur-bearing, flighted, and reptilian menagerie in Gray also includes black bears, coyotes, woodchucks, and white-tailed deer; barred owls, red-tailed hawks, a Cooper's hawk, and a turkey vulture; and painted turtles and wood turtles.
For the uncaged wildlife, this zoo is a walk in the park. One evening this spring, a wild turkey traipsed across the footpath and a pileated woodpecker performed a flyover, captivating visiting bird-watchers.
Tourists enter the unspoiled zoological haven off Route 26, passing a plantation of tall red pines, an 1857 one-room schoolhouse, and five single-word wooden signs displayed Burma-Shave billboard style: PLEASE . . . DON'T . . . FEED . . . OUR . . . ANIMALS.
Humans, however, are encouraged to eat and rest and stroll. Picnic tables (some beside charcoal braziers), wooden benches, and an occasional gazebo dot the pastoral landscape surrounding the wildlife enclosures. Rudimentary outdoor classrooms are used for educational programs on a variety of topics from chain saw art to nuisance wildlife removal.
The visitors center, showcasing taxidermy mounts, and other outbuildings like the Friends Snack Shack, a gift shop, and even the restrooms are rustic log cabins.
Last year, the family-friendly attraction tallied 112,394 visits, at $5 each for adults, during its weather-dependent, buggy mid-April to mid-November season. Kane estimates the ratio of in-state to out-of-state visitors to be 60/40 and says most are a peculiar creature known as the ''non-consumptive wildlife user" -- in other words, non-hunters.
''It's our most visible outreach program," said Mark Latti, Fisheries & Wildlife spokesman, referring to the wildlife park. ''We hope to create conservationists for the future."
Last November, in a move some might find ironic, Fisheries & Wildlife opposed a referendum that would have made it a crime to hunt bears with bait, traps, or dogs (except in certain circumstances) that was defeated after contentious public debate. That position, Latti says, was not inconsistent with maintaining a wildlife park.
''People enjoy Maine's wildlife in various ways," he said. ''For some, it's going to be wildlife watching. And for others, it's going to be hunting. But both of them see great value in that same resource."
For half a century, from 1931 to 1982, the Maine Wildlife Park (then known locally as the Gray Game Farm) raised 25,000 pheasants a year for release during hunting season. Today, the park's only exotics are four species in the pheasant family, Phasianidae, that are kept as ties to its history.
The farm languished in the '80s, without active brooder houses or a clear mandate, becoming more or less a wildlife drop-off site for wardens and biologists.
''It evolved," says Kane, who was hired in 1988. ''There was nothing formal that said, 'We're going to turn this into an educational facility,' but by 1982 they had a fairly large collection of animals."
By 1990, the financially strapped Fisheries & Wildlife targeted the farm for closure. The local citizenry roared.
A loose-knit, grass-roots group that became the nonprofit Friends of the Maine Wildlife Park rallied to save the zoo, launching a petition drive and lobbying the Legislature.
''They raised such a public hue and cry . . . so that the department couldn't close it without serious repercussions," Kane says.
A subsequent 1991 law required the property, which has a $500,380 budget this year, to become ''increasingly financially self-sustaining."
On Thursday the zoo will complete its second self-sustaining year.
For its 85 unheralded volunteers, like 75-year-old Connie Kippax, the Maine Wildlife Park is a kind of fixer-upper, constantly in need of staff at the entrance gate and snack shack, to construct outbuildings, lead nature tours, and perform countless mundane tasks, including picking up trash.
''I'm an animal lover and a tree-hugger," declares Kippax, a retired schoolteacher from New Gloucester and a park volunteer for 12 years. ''It seems like I live here."
Visitors to this rural outpost swoon at the formal gardens bursting with New England asters, black-eyed Susans, wild beach roses, and blueberry bushes, to name a few, meant to lure butterflies and songbirds but whose ephemeral beauty is like nectar to the mobs.
Kippax, though, tends the daisies and petunias in the narrow strip of land captured between double fences that provide security around the fractious Eastern cougars, Bob and Vishnu.
''When I first went in, Bob tried to intimidate me," she said. ''He'd stalk me. So I'd just sweet-talk him and tell him he's a sweet, old puddycat. Now, he never gives me that menacing, evil eye."
Behind the scenes, gamekeepers like Adam Farrington and Sherri Gee, a licensed animal rehabilitator, form unique bonds with their charges.
When Farrington, 27, recently fed dog food to Red Bear through the chain-link fence, the reddish black bear stood on its hind legs, pressed two mammoth paws against the bending pen, and slobbered all over his keeper.
''It's like a 600-pound dog licking my face!" said Farrington.
Gee, 41, took her turn bottle-feeding the bobcats as kittens. She spent a night on a cot beside the infirmary stall of a red fox that received 49 stitches on the losing end of a fox fight. She was with Lucy the mountain lion, cradling her head, when the big cat died at 3 a.m.
''I couldn't leave her," Gee says, tearing up.
On a knoll behind the black bear habitat, out of public view, sits a makeshift animal cemetery with penciled garden stakes as headstones.
''We buried Lucy that next morning," Gee recalls. ''That's when you see a bunch of big, burly, bearded men crying."
Stacey Chase is a freelance writer in Yarmouth, Maine. Contact her at email@example.com.