AD Main Menu

Alaska officially adds Taser to wildlife control arsenal

Mike Campbell

Can the same zap that immobilizes a criminal brandishing a weapon be used on a manic moose or a gonzo grizzly?

Spurred by the efforts of Fish and Game wildlife technician Larry Lewis of Soldotna, the use of Tasers on large animals is beginning to gain currency among wildlife managers across the U.S. -- and even overseas.

"Since we've started this five years ago, it has garnered a lot of interest from other states and management agencies," said Lewis, who recently finished instructing the first group of state Division of Wildlife Conservation staffers on the use of Tasers in limited wildlife situations, making Alaska the first state to officially use Tasers for wildlife control.

Six months ago, Lewis presented the idea of using Tasers on bears to a group of wildlife managers who deal with human-bear conflicts during a conference in Canmore, Alberta. Much to his surprise, no one scoffed.

"I didn't get one negative comment," he said. "Mainly what I heard was that if this saves an animal's life, it's a useful tool."

Lewis first became interested in the prospect of using Tasers in wildlife management five years ago when an Alaska State Trooper requested his help.

"I had an epiphany while being chased by an angry moose," Lewis joked.

The cow was upset that her two calves were trapped in an open four-foot deep basement foundation at a home-construction site. Neither noisemakers nor rubber ammo fired from a shotgun could convince her to leave so the calves could be retrieved.

Lewis tried lowering a ramp into the pit so the calves could walk out. But as he approached them, the cow charged, jumping into the foundation. Then it chased Lewis and the trooper three times around the patrol car.

Both men were armed. But rather than shooting the moose, Lewis said the trooper leaned across the hood of his patrol car and used his Taser. The weapon's barbed, conductive leads hit the moose in the left front shoulder. Stunned and immobilized, the animal immediately fell. The leads pulled free as the moose hit the ground, and it soon ran off into the woods, allowing Lewis to rescue the calves from the basement and retreat to the patrol car.

That incident got Lewis wondering if Tasers might be used in similar circumstances with moose and, in other situations, with bears and other large animals.

"I thought, 'Wow, I want one of those,' " he said. "And, if anything, I'm known for being very persistent."

Working with state research biologist Tom Lohuis and veterinarian Kimberlee Beckmen, Lewis studied the effects of Tasers on about a half-dozen captive moose at Soldotna's Moose Research Center. He also worked with the manufacturer Taser International to refine the design of the non-lethal weapon for use on wildlife.

But for all of his involvement with the use of Tasers to solve thorny wildlife confrontations, Lewis has plenty of reservations and cautions.

"I would discourage someone from bringing a weapon into the woods if they're not trained with the weapon," he said. "Leave the weapon at home, and use something you can use in a stress situation.

"I just shudder when people buy a piece of equipment and all of a sudden think they don't have to do anything proactive in bear country. It's a false sense of security that gets people into trouble and leads them to make decisions they wouldn't otherwise make."

Lewis himself carries a firearm on patrol as well as when he walks his dog at home. His wife, on the other hand, carries bear spray because she's more comfortable using that. Individuals' feelings about the use of deadly force on an animal plays a huge role, too.

"If I were in a situation where I had to defend myself from a bear in close quarters, I would not reach for my Taser," he said. "I'm going to reach for the Alamo. I would not advise anybody to use a Taser as a primary mode of bear defense."

Still, there is much about Tasers, which deliver a high voltage but low amperage jolt similar to an electric fence, that wildlife managers find appealing.

Lohuis said blood samples indicated Tasered moose started to return to normal within 30 minutes compared to the 24-48 hours it takes a moose to recover from being drugged.

Even better, animals usually flee.

"The flight response is great," said Lewis, who delivered a paper on his findings to The Wildlife Society in Bethesda, Md., last week. "I guess it's more scary because the animals haven't been exposed to it, so it's intimidating. With bears and big ungulates, that's what they respect -- something that's intimidating."

One criticism of using Tasers on animals is that it's cruel and painful to the animal. The zap causes involuntary muscle contractions, essentially freezing them up. But it does not affect the central nervous system. Animals can still breath and think -- but can't move.

"There's some short-term pain involved," Lewis acknowledged. "I've been Tasered, and I didn't enjoy it. But there's no pain memory, and recovery is quick."

Two collared brown bears that had regularly visited the Yakutat dump were shot with Tasers by officials. Instead of reacting aggressively, they left the dump. Even though they returned later, Lewis said, they showed a greater aversion to people after being zapped.

Results like that have Lewis fielding questions from wildlife managers as far away as Kenya, where elephants sometimes tear down fences and get shot by villagers.

But in Alaska, Lewis is committed to "taking this slow."

A graduate of Taser International's master instructor courses, he has written a state operating procedure for Taser use on wildlife and will pursue more brown bear research with Lohuis this summer.

Reach reporter Mike Campbell at mcampbell@adn.com or 257-4329.


By MIKE CAMPBELL
mcampbell@adn.com