Meet Drifter, the elderly beaver with an accessible habitat at Sudbury's Science North

An elderly beaver is feeling pretty spry these days, thanks to a specially designed accessible habitat.
Drifter the beaver lives at Science North in Sudbury, Ont., in a specially designed accessible habitat. (Robin De Angelis/CBC)

An elderly beaver is feeling pretty spry these days, thanks to a specially designed accessible habitat at Science North.

Drifter has been a fixture at the Sudbury, Ont., science centre for 14 years, but a few months ago his caretakers began to notice a change in behaviour.

Amy Henson, a biologist with Science North, says beavers usually need different types of spaces to live. The animals split their time between a lodge, a swimming area and a forested place where they can cut down trees.

"What we started to notice was that Drifter basically stopped swimming, so he basically was confining himself to his lodge area and wasn't ever leaving," Henson said.

Biologist Amy Henson has cared for Drifter since he first came to Science North in 2004. (Robin De Angelis/CBC)

That change in behaviour was a big sign to Henson that something was wrong.

"When an animal stops behaving the way we think that animal should, that's when we sort of stop, think about what's going on and whether we can change anything of what we're doing."

Henson has worked with Drifter since he first came to Science North in 2004, and says he's always had some special needs that require extra attention.

Drifter had several injuries including a stubby tail and partial paralysis from a spinal injury. The now aging beaver — who is estimated to be between 15 and 19 years old — has since developed spinal arthritis.

When Drifter began spending more time in his lodge, Henson decided to try designing a more accessible habitat in another area of the centre.

Drifter used to live in this much larger habitat, but as he got older he was no longer able to use the large pond. Science North's newest beaver, Kashkuanashku, took over the space last year. (Robin De Angelis/CBC)

Within a day, she noticed a dramatic difference.

"He started building again. We haven't seen that behaviour from him in ages," Henson explained.

"Beavers are engineers, that's what they want to do ... That's really good, healthy beaver behaviour."

Drifter now spends his days in a seven by five meter enclosure in the Nocturnal Room. Henson says that beavers are usually most active and dawn or dusk so the dim, quiet space is ideal.

The habitat includes a small pond that Drifter can splash around in or drink from, and a small den that acts as his lodge.

There's also space for him to stay active by cutting down small trees and playing in the mulch on the ground.

Drifter's former home does have a new occupant — a young beaver named Kashkuanashku, who has taken over the big pond.

Drifter's new home includes a mulch-covered floor, some trees and branches to build with and small pond. He also has a little den to sleep in. (Robin De Angelis/CBC)

Henson says many longtime visitors who are fans of Drifter have asked why he made the move.

"It's important that we talk about that with people so that they kind of get and understand that what we're doing is very conscious and it's very specific, so that we can provide the right kind of care as he enters into a different time of his life."

She adds that Science North often receives animals with unique needs and abilities.

"They have needs as a species, but they also have individual needs as an individual animal, and we want to make sure that we're evaluating those properly and making sure that we're delivering the proper care."

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Robin De Angelis is a multimedia journalist based in southwestern Ontario. She has previously worked as a reporter covering local news in Sudbury. Get in touch on Twitter @RobinElizabethD or by email