Calf conundrum

‘Saving’ young moose can have deadly consequences for animals, people

Posted: Sunday, June 04, 2006

 

  Carol Burdick of Soldotna got a prime view of triplet moose calves ┐ which are more rare than twins ┐ in the back yard of her family's Sterling home the afternoon of May 28. "They appeared to be about two days old at that time," she said. "They are not as wobbly as the one that I saw a few years ago that was only hours old in our yard." Photo provided by Carol Burdick┐

Carol Burdick of Soldotna got a prime view of triplet moose calves which are more rare than twins in the back yard of her family's Sterling home the afternoon of May 28. "They appeared to be about two days old at that time," she said. "They are not as wobbly as the one that I saw a few years ago that was only hours old in our yard."

Photo provided by Carol Burdick

June marks several changes in Alaska. Salmon enter the rivers in greater numbers, wildflowers begin to bloom in abundance and miniature versions of the states’ largest ungulate begin to show up seemingly everywhere.

“It’s moose calving season and we’re already getting calls,” said Jeff Selinger, Soldotna area management biologist with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game.

Following a gestation period of roughly 230 days, moose calves are born — often in duplicate and occasionally triplicate. Although the calving season may stretch from mid-May until mid-July, Selinger said now is when the phone calls about “abandoned” calves begin to reach their peak.

He said, however, that the vast majority of the time the calves aren’t abandoned — it just seems that way. Being left alone for brief periods is all part of a moose calves’ strategy for survival.

Unlike some species of ungulates dubbed by biologists as “followers” because they can within minutes be up and on their feet moving with their mother for miles a day, moose calves initially are “hiders.”

“They’re not very mobile the first few days,” said Selinger.

The calves lie out in soft beds of natural vegetation for the first few days to weeks until they get their legs under them and learn a little coordination. During this period their mothers go off to eat and generate milk to feed the calves upon their return.

“But, the calves get hungry or impatient, so they get up, start walking around and bleating,” Selinger said.

This lulls some people into thinking the calf has lost its mother or been abandoned, but Selinger said it’s wise not to interfere.

“The best thing to do is just leave them alone,” he said.

Approaching a calf can be a potentially dangerous situation since moose mothers are protective of their offspring.

“Adult moose can kill a person as quickly as a bear,” Selinger said.

He said moose will flail out with their legs, kicking and stomping to protect a calf. Being struck by one of their limbs is like being hit with a sledge hammer, not to mention what would happen if the animal were to get on top of a downed person, Selinger said.

“You wouldn’t want 800 to 900 pounds coming down on you like that,” he said.

In addition to being a safety risk, picking up a calf can doom the creature, rather than saving it.

“Currently, they are no facilities to take them in,” Selinger said.

While the Moose Research Center in Sterling, Big Game Alaska in Girdwood and numerous zoos will occasionally take in moose calves when they have the space and adequate funding to care for them, that just isn’t the case this year.

“They are all full. There are just no places for them,” Selinger said, and if a calf can’t be placed it may end up euthanized.

A would-be rescuer deciding to raise a calf on their own is not an alternative.

“That’s a big no-no,” Selinger said.

Not only are state regulations clear that only licensed wildlife rehabilitators and facilities be allowed to raise calves, but the general public raising calves presents human safety issues.

“Many times feeding an animal gets them habituated to people and they loose their fear of people,” he said.

This may not seem like a big deal when the animal is a calf, but an adult moose can weigh more than five times what an adult human does, and if they decided to throw their weight around the results could be fatal.

Releasing moose back to the wild as an adult isn’t an option, either, Selinger said. There are diseases known to occur in captive populations of moose that make reintroducing them risky to their wild counterparts. It would also be risky to the released animal.

“(A captive-reared moose) may not be prepared to defend itself in the wild since it never learned how to avoid or get out of dangerous situations,” Selinger said.

Selinger pointed out that even when moose calves are legitimately abandoned, as hard as it may be to bear, it’s important for people to understand that not all calves can make it.

“Some are going to die. It’s going to happen and it’s all part of the natural system,” he said.

But through their deaths other animals are able to sustain their own lives.

“Many species rely on moose calves for food. Bears — both brown and black — are feeding on them at this time of year, and as a nutritional supplement, they are essential. They give the bear population a boost of protein until the salmon hit the rivers,” Selinger said.

He added that wolves, coyotes and eagles may also rely on moose calves.



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