Putting moose calves down may be kindest option

June 8, 2009 

Across the broad sweep of tens of millions of acres of wilderness to the north of this city, moose calves are dying by the thousands.

This is the way of nature.

We are in the season of birth. And death on a massive scale.

Only the tiniest fraction of the salmon fry that have fought their way out of the gravel will ever make it back to spawn. Millions of their kind are already being eaten by larger salmon and rainbow trout and the newly returned Merganser ducks and other predators.

Bear sows with their ever-so cute triplets will be down to two or one or no cubs within weeks or months. Cubs will fall behind on family wanderings until they are left. Or they will be killed by other bears or wolves. Or they will drown or fall to their deaths.

Most calves born to cow moose this past May, as in every other May, are doomed too. Bears will get some. Wolves others. Golden eagles a few more. And, as with the bear cubs, some will drown.

Nature kills indiscriminately, and it kills everything at some time. But mostly it kills the young. The old die too, and the simply unlucky, but death by fang and claw focuses heavily on the newly born. They are the food that fuels the ecosystem of predator and prey.

Foreign though these deaths of innocents might seem to us in the comfortable, insulated human world of our time, it is the most natural of all things in nature.

Young animals by the thousands die bloody, painful deaths in great numbers out there in the wild because they are meant to die, while in Anchorage we fret over the possibility two moose calves might be put humanely to death.

With thousands of moose calves dying unnoticed and unmentioned, we worry that the Alaska Department of Fish and Game might, or might not, put two calves permanently to sleep because there is no one to raise them with their mother dead and the zoos full.

Why do we care so much?

Why do two calves among thousands of calves suddenly become an issue of public concern in Alaska's largest city?

Because we are human. Because these calves in their youthful gangliness display a vulnerability that tears at the heart.

Because it is our nature to want them to live. Because it is only human to feel for their plight.

Part of the attraction is that they are cuter than cute, but more of it resides in their helplessness. You can see it in their eyes. Their big, brown eyes seem almost to cry out for help.

I doubt I was the only one drawn more to the plight of these moose than the city's dying homeless last week. This does not, I eventually decided, make one unnecessarily callous or uncaring toward their fellow man.

People have the power to make choices. There are support systems to which they can reach out. Yes, I understand fully the issue of mental illness and the way it can disable people. But even they are better equipped for survival than moose calves.

With a protective mother by its side, a calf has at best only a fair chance of survival.

Without a mother, a calf is dead. It cannot survive. It is helpless, its life numbered not in years or months but days and hours, if not minutes.

What makes us human is that we recognize the helplessness and feel compassion for it.

The only trouble with compassion is that it must sometimes be balanced by reason.

Anchorage, most agree, already has too many moose. They have become a hazard to public safety. They stomp kids walking to school. They get involved in motor vehicles accidents that kill and injure people and cost hundreds of thousands of dollars every year.

Admittedly, not all of this is the fault of the moose. A lot of Anchorage drivers pay scant attention to the road around them when driving. It's no surprise they run into moose. More often than not, moose-car collisions are more the fault of the driver than of the animal.

But there is no doubt that with fewer moose there would be fewer collisions. Just as there is no doubt that with fewer moose, there would be fewer people injured by moose every year.

So is it wise to "save" two calves unless there is somewhere to send them? Do we want the state to pay the Alaska Zoo to raise them until they could be turned loose as yearlings in Anchorage? If the calves aren't to live here, what do we want to become of them? Do we want to grow them big enough that we can dump them on the Kenai Peninsula or into the Susitna Valley and then hope the pen-raised moose are smart enough to avoid becoming bear snacks no matter how unlikely that might be?

It feels good to save baby animals. There is no doubt about that. But then you have to figure out what to do with them when they grow up.

Find Craig Medred online at adn.com/contact/cmedred or call 257-4588.

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