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Don't Mess with a Moose

By James and Terry Hyde, R.N., B.S.N.

One would think that a wild animal that can weigh up to 1,400 pounds and has antlers that often weigh 60+ pounds would be avoided at all costs by people. Well, if you thought that, you thought wrong. While moose are generally shy, they can be approached and even fed by people, but it's never advisable as anyone who lives in Alaska can tell you. They can be docile depending on what sex they are and what season it is.

If the animal is the wrong sex (a bull) in the wrong season (the rut) they can get extremely aggressive. You don't want an animal that can stand six feet at the shoulder and run as fast as 40 mph coming after you. Bottom line to those with normal intelligence: Don't approach a moose. Instead, admire the beast from a safe distance.

As with all dangers in life, not everyone possesses common sense, and since moose can be laid back, approaching one is like holding a firecracker on a dare until the fuse almost gets to the explosive.

While driving along Route 100 near Stowe, Vermont, a few years back, we saw a bull moose with an enormous rack eating some tasty twigs in a roadside apple orchard. Tourists and natives alike had pulled over to watch and photograph the phenomenon, which for many of them was a first and probably unique glimpse of a moose in the wild.

One woman, obviously a tourist was either incredibly brave or managed a combined 400 on her college boards. She decided it was a swell idea to get as close as possible to the huge beast so her husband could take a picture of her palling around with the bull.

I pulled over in case they needed help piecing her back together when that moose charged. Her husband, who obviously did a lot better on his college boards, quickly snapped the shot then yelled at her through clenched teeth to back away from the snorting moose slowly. She made it, but had she gone much closer, she could have been in some serious trouble.

Fortunately, it was late summer, when antlers on bulls have reached their full growth and a bull's life is pretty much like that in a Gary Larsen cartoon. They knock back a few beers and chow down on guacamole. But had it been rutting season, that bull probably would have made short work of that woman. Had it been a cow moose with calves in the spring, same situation.

If you come upon a moose that's close by and it's letting you know it's not happy about your presence, you need to look around and find a way out of your chance encounter.

The fact of the matter is, bull moose are most dangerous during the rutting season (much of the fall) and in the winter, when they get fatigued while walking in heavy snows. They've been known to bed down under decks or lean against structures, exhausted, when they've completed a trek through the snow.

That does not mean that, as kind hearted as you may be, you should go out and try to help the most mammoth member of the cervid family. He's merely tired and resting, and when he catches his breath, he'll thank you for your kindness by pummeling you with his hooves.

The female of the species, cows, can get very ugly when approached, especially during the spring and summer seasons after they've calved or are teaching their youngsters the ways of the wild. And getting between a cow and a calf is like poking a grizzly bear with a stick. Cows are incredibly protective of their young and have been known to take on wolf packs to save a calf.

This is a good example of how a moose isn't intimidated by man. He walks up to about six feet away from the hunter. After the hunter shoots the arrow into its chest, the moose charges immediately, knocking the hunter down.
Unfortunately, many people don't know the charge warning signs. Moose have been known to walk up to people almost nonchalantly as if they're inviting interaction. Don't be too quick to accept the perceived friendly invitation. They will often walk slowly up to a person for one of two reasons: 1. To warn you; 2. Because they expect you to offer up some food. In either case, it's not approaching to be patted, and the smartest thing to do is run until you put something big and hard between you and that moose.

The warning signs that a charge is imminent (which is distinct from meandering in your direction) are:

1. The hair on the hump on its back is raised;

2. Its ears are down and back; and,

3. It starts licking its lips.

According to wildlife authorities, if you can see it licking its lips, you're way too close anyway.

More often than not, if you run away from a moose exhibiting these charge signals, it'll probably end its pursuit after a relatively short time. But if one does charge, do your best to run and get behind a nearby tree (as big as possible), move around it away from the charging beast. You're far more agile than it is, so you could escape it that way or by continuing to encircle the tree or climbing the tree if possible.

Many charges are warnings--bluffs to see what you'll do. If the moose doesn't get the response it wants and does charge you, it kicks out with its forelegs when it gets close enough and can cause some serious injury doing that alone. More often, it will knock you down and has been known to use all four hooves on anyone on the ground. If that animal weighs 1,400 pounds, do the math on what being battered by its hooves can do to you.

The smartest thing to do under that scenario is to curl up in a fetal position, protect your head with your hands and arms and remain absolutely motionless. Do not move until the animal is well away from you or you may trigger a second attack.

When it's all over, seek medical attention right away. Animal attacks do put people into shock, and if you get shocky, you'll be in no shape to assess your medical condition on your own. If the moose breaks a rib or two, you could suffer a pneumothorax (collapsed lung), which is very serious. So get to the nearest hospital as quickly as possible for a full examination.

There have been occasions when moose have attacked people without any apparent provocation. According to www.thedenverchannel.com, the Denver ABC affiliate website, Louis Heckert, a 92-year-old man walking to church, was blindsided by a moose and wound up in critical condition in a local hospital. Wildlife authorities are still scratching their heads about what caused that attack. The answer may lie in whether or not a human fed that bull.

If a moose is fed once by a human, but not again, it may attack the person who fed it or any other human if it doesn't get more food. Their ability to get conditioned by just one feeding, during which they quickly make the connection between humans and food, is uncanny.

Interestingly, during the American Revolution, Hessians, the German allies of the British, actually captured and broke moose to be ridden like horses into battle. They were pretty handy war machines with those vast antlers and slashing hooves. Trouble was, at the first sound of gunfire, they turned tail and headed straight away from the battle, the Hessians trying frantically to turn them around without luck.

If you see one and have a camera, snap away, but from a safe distance. It's definitely a "don't touch" creature.

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