Death of Denali the 'kissable' moose hits hard at Reindeer Farm

Zaz Hollander
Photo courtesy Denise Hardy

WASILLA -- RIP Denali the moose.

The beloved 5-year-old ungulate petted by thousands of children at the Williams Reindeer Farm in the Butte died Friday after suffering a bad reaction to medication.

Raised at the tourist attraction since he was a dog-sized 2-week-old calf, Denali grew into a three-quarter-ton moose with a loving disposition. The sweet-tempered animal even developed a reputation for his lip-smacking treatment of visitors.

"He's actually kissed a lot of famous people," said Denise Hardy, who runs the farm for her parents, Tom and Gene Williams. "He's kissed Mike Rowe, from 'Dirty Jobs'. He's kissed Larry the Cable Guy. And Sarah Palin."

By Tuesday, dozens of people had posted photos of Denali kissing friends and family members on the farm's Facebook page. People put sprigs of willow in their mouths, or carrots, or even Denali's favorite treat -- bananas -- in their mouths to encourage his attention. Sometimes, if he was feeling really friendly, Denali would lick their cheeks.

The farm is a popular destination for tourists as well as local preschool and school groups, who would come to see the herd of domesticated caribou and three dozen elk but spend quality time loving on the more amiable Denali.

The third moose to live at the farm, he was the highlight of one local fan's visit last summer.

"As an old 'city kid' from the East coast, I never thought I'd get to Alaska, much less touch a moose - or share a banana with one," the man wrote on the farm's Facebook page. "He'll be missed by hundreds."

Maybe thousands.

Hardy figures about 6,000 children come through the farm on tours every year. Multiply that by Denali's nearly six years there ...

"He's touched a lot of people," she said. "Not just kids, but everybody loved him because he was so special. It's been really devastating."

Hardy was still grieving Denali's loss on Tuesday. She said the farm plans to put up framed photos of the moose by May 1, when they open to the public for the summer, but there's no time to do a memorial service with the reindeer calving season set to start.

Under a permit from the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, the moose came to the farm from Homer, where locals thought the near-starving calf might have been abandoned by his mother. They fed him powdered moose milk (ordered from the Lower 48) and he bulked up fast on a diet of moose pellets mixed with spent brewer's grain from Moose's Tooth and Glacier Brewhouse plus willow branches that Brand and others at the farm cut daily, about six bundles every day.

The family was always on the hunt for willows, Hardy said.

"I was just driving back from Palmer after dropping my son off today and thought, 'Oh, there's some willows'," she said. "Then I started bawling. I don't need them now."

Denali's death came as a total shock, she said.

Hardy was administering a fairly new brand of worming medication to the moose at the farm Friday when he appeared to start choking. She called veterinarian Sabrina Holland, who came within 30 minutes. But by then, Denali was gone. He suffered an allergic response known as anaphylactic shock.

Even if she'd gotten there immediately, Holland said, she wouldn't have been able to get close to Denali. "He was a nice moose but he's still a moose and I can't walk in there with him."

Holland said the anaphylaxis was only part of the problem. The moose had been ailing for about six months but no one could figure out the problem.

"It's a terrible thing but the real question in my mind is why was he on his way out anyway?" she said, adding that Brand and others at the farm were doing all they could to help.

Complete lab results from a necropsy aren't expected back for a month or so, Holland said.

Meanwhile, the farm is gearing up for the visitor season.

The caribou don't seem to notice Denali's absence. Dolly the bison does, though.

Dolly has always shared a fenceline with a moose: first Cathy, then Bruce, then Denali.

"I think she's been feeling a little more lonely," Hardy said. "We've been going out and giving her extra attention."

Reach Zaz Hollander at or 257-4317.