Moose death at Valley school prompts criticism, questions

TAUNTED: Biologists are unsure if students' actions were the cause.

April 22, 2009 

WASILLA -- Though no one knows what killed a yearling moose found dead outside Colony Middle School on Monday, two students stand accused of contributing to its death by taunting the animal after finding it on school grounds during a physical education class, according to Alaska State Troopers and school officials.

After allegedly being harassed by the students, the moose became frightened, rammed itself into a fence outside the school near Palmer, and then died, according to troopers. The animal's death has provoked a flurry of comments to school officials and prompted questions about the supervision of students during class.

Tony Kavalok, the wildlife biologist for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game in Palmer, said he has also been getting bombarded with calls and e-mails from people upset about the moose's death.

Kavalok said he has no clue as to how the animal died, but he cautioned against a rush to judgment. Kavalok noted that this is the time of year when moose, weakened from a long winter, die all over Southcentral Alaska. Biologists say it is natural for significant numbers of moose to die or be found dead every spring in Anchorage, Wasilla, Kenai and other communities.

The biological term for these deaths is "winter kill."

Though moose browse the twigs of willow brush and other shrubs for food all winter, the woody products they are eating do not have enough nutrition to sustain them. To get through the winter, the animals must rely on fat reserves to bolster the low-calorie diet. If the fat reserves run out before nutritious green vegetation begins to appear in the spring, the animals usually die.

Last year's calves, which are just now being chased away by mothers about to give birth to new calves, are among the animals most vulnerable to because their fat reserves are small.

Kavalok, who said he has been getting calls about the "terrible kids'' at Colony and their "horrible act," said it is unfair to judge what happened at the school until more is known.

"This is the time of year when calves just tip over" and die, he said. That could be what happened at Colony. Or, he added, it's possible the students scared an already stressed animal, causing it to run into something and kill itself.

Mat-Su Borough School District spokeswoman Catherine Esary on Wednesday defended schoolteachers accused of being lax in supervising the students who encountered the moose. The students had been let outside and the teachers were on their way out when the confrontation with the moose began, she said.

She described the young animal's death and the students' behavior as "tragic" and added that "appropriate disciplinary action has been taken" against the two students who harassed the moose. She would not elaborate.

Esary said the incident happened Monday morning in a field behind the school after three classes were sent outside for physical education.

During the time between when the students went out and when the teachers walked outside, two students found the moose in the schoolyard. They yelled at it and "might" have thrown some small stones at the animal, Esary said.

This, according to trooper spokeswoman Megan Peters, caused the moose to run itself into a fence.

When the teachers discovered what was happening, Esary said, they put a stop to it and the students were brought back inside. If the teachers had known a moose was on the grounds, she added, they wouldn't have let the students outside to begin with.

The whole incident lasted just a few minutes, she said.

Esary didn't know what sort of injuries -- if any -- the moose suffered. Peters was unable to offer any insight either. There was no written report on the case, she said. The trooper who responded to the school was not working Wednesday and could not be reached for comment, she said.

She said the case is not under investigation. The carcass was donated to a charity, which butchered the animal for food.

Experienced Alaska wildlife biologists were skeptical that "small stones'' would have much effect on a moose. As one noted, many an Alaska gardener has bounced a good size rock off the side of a moose without harming the animal.


Contact S.J. Komarnitsky at skomarnitsky@adn.com. Contact Craig Medred at cmedred@adn.com.

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