In the Company of Moose
By Victor Van Ballenberghe
If moose interest you, "In the Company of Moose" belongs on your shelf.
Long-time biologist Victor Van Ballenberghe, who has studied the big animals for decades, has created a fine book that combines eloquent prose and stunning photographs. The slender volume contains observations, personal and scientific, gleaned from decades of wilderness field studies that gave the author unusually intimate insights into animal lives.
"I want to share with you the beauty of moose as I have seen it and tell you about the things I have experienced in the company of moose," he writes in his introduction.
"For 35 years my life has been intertwined with the lives of moose, the giant deer that inhabit northern forests. As a wildlife biologist, I researched moose from Minnesota to Alaska, studying everything from what they ate to how they behaved and how they survived in the presence of bears and wolves."
Van Ballenberghe goes on to say that, as his career sunsets, he finds himself setting aside the dispassionate view of data collection and being drawn more and more to admire the animals for their individuality, beauty, gentleness and what he calls their strange grace.
The text consists of six essays about moose and his work among them. Each is compelling and self-contained. Written for the lay reader, they show an instinct for storytelling and no trace of the deadly dryness that afflicts much science writing.
The author presents a wealth of information about moose behavior and ecology, but he presents it in a graceful context of plot. When explaining the findings of scientific studies, he emphasizes scientists' curiosity and discoveries. When explaining moose behavior, he tells how individual animals react to specific situations. The result conveys the real excitement that inspires science and the real drama of the precarious lives of wild things.
Van Ballenberghe began his career when new tools and approaches were transforming the study of animal behavior. Pioneers such as Jane Goodall were showing that meticulous, long-term observation of individual animals could yield groundbreaking results, and the introduction of radio collaring made it possible to follow individual animals through vast and remote habitat. Neither of these are academic desk exercises. They involve arduous trekking and unpredictable wilderness encounters that generate plenty of adventure.
Although he studied moose in many places, his focus soon turned to Denali National Park and Preserve, which he first visited in the late 1970s. He found it offered unique opportunities for wildlife studies. Protected from hunting and development, the populations of both prey and predator species seemed healthy and balanced. The landscape had fair road access, and the animals had grown accustomed to visitors and lost much of the usual shyness in the presence of people.
Within Denali, he further focused on autumn to observe the odd theatrics of the rutting season. He learned where moose congregate for breeding and returned year after year to watch them battle and court.
"In the Company of Moose" tells the stories of three individual moose he met through his studies, a mother and daughter and a splendid bull he called Big Boy. He describes the bull in his prime:
"Some bulls have scarred faces, rough coats, potbellies, or other unattractive features. Big Boy was sleek and unscarred, with a long, full bell hanging from his chin, an Errol Flynn sort of moose with a personality to match."
The pictures are just as vivid. Gleaned from his vast personal collection, they show magnificent animals going about their business amid stunning scenery. Included are rare sights such as a bear with a fresh kill, a cow licking off a newborn calf and close-ups of bulls sparring.
Van Ballenberghe is frank. He expresses thoughtful and nuanced reservations about predator control and the effects of hunting on the populations health. Although the book is gorgeous, it is not for the squeamish with its descriptions of predation, mating and the distinctive moose fetish for rolling in urine during the rut.
Because each section of the book can stand alone, the author sometimes repeats himself. But that is a minor quibble with such a well-crafted book.
"In the Company of Moose" is handsome enough to grace a coffee table, but substantive enough to contribute to any natural history library. It is obvious that the author is sharing not only impressive expertise on the topic of moose biology but also a sincere affection for the animals he has come to know.
Shana Loshbaugh is a writer and former Clarion reporter who now lives near Fairbanks.
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