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Alaska mansion's fence kills another moose, the fourth in three years

Rick Sinnott
Left: Jessy Coltrane / ADF&G, Right: APD

UPDATE: A study is under way to find a fix for a fence around the Atwood Mansion with a history of torturing and killing moose in Anchorage. Natasha von Imhof, a spokeswoman for the Atwood Foundation, said she walked the fence line on Thursday with a representative of Triple A Fence and asked for suggestions and bids on a plan to either remove the spike-topped steel fence or cap the spikes to keep moose from impaling themselves there. She expects the foundation board to address the issue in the fall.

Read more here, and for the original story, read below.


The city of Anchorage has no distinctive urban identity or iconic landmarks. In “Coming Into the Country,” John McPhee described Anchorage as “an American spore.” In another metaphor he wrote: “A large cookie cutter brought down on El Paso could lift something like Anchorage into the air.” Unintentionally confirming McPhee’s impression, the best tourism incentives the city has come up with are marketing slogans like” “Wild About Anchorage” or “Big. Wild. Life.” In other words, the city’s identity relies primarily on a perception of wildness, not any urban characteristic.

Anchorage has no unique skyline like New York or Paris, no canals like Venice, no soaring bridge like San Francisco. In a city with no inherent identity, residents are free to choose any style that suits their fancy and budget. And of all the idiosyncratic choices, one of the most incongruous examples is the Atwood Mansion, also known as the Marilaine.

The Atwood Mansion squats in a quiet corner of Turnagain. It features the requisite white columns, statues, a large, well-tended lawn, and a decorative metal palisade fence. Ironically, the rear of the mansion bears a passing resemblance to a well-known house on Long Island, in New York state, an infamous house named the Amityville Horror.

This resemblance is more than just a matter of appearance. If a house can have a personality, and surely a mansion with its own name can be said to have its own personality, the Atwood Mansion is one haunted by ghosts, the ghosts of moose.

Something at the Atwood Mansion has killed four young moose in the last three years, each one disemboweled and draped limply over its gothic fence like the corpses of Vlad the Impaler’s victims.

Killer has been identified

The killer is no mystery. It’s not an unspeakable evil residing deep within the bowels of the mansion. It’s not Vlad Dracula or any of the phantasmagorical creatures inspired by his bloodthirsty excesses. It is the fence itself.

A metal palisade fence surrounds the manicured grounds of the mansion. Like most palisade fences it bristles with closely spaced pales, or points, fashioned to look like spear tips or arrowheads. Metal palisade fences are unusual in Anchorage. Several have killed moose, either by puncturing their abdomen or snagging their hind legs. But none of the other fences have racked up a body count like the Atwood Mansion.

Have you ever attempted to leap over a fence but were only halfway successful? This happens all the time to urban-dwelling moose. Luckily, a moose has four legs, so it doesn’t land on its crotch, it does a belly slide. When a moose jumps a fence higher than its back, it often slides its abdomen and hind legs across the top rail. No problem. Unless the fence is a phalanx of metal spears.

Urban moose are not intimidated by fences. They can’t afford to be. Moose have to move to eat, and there are thousands of miles of fences in Anchorage. Like us, moose tend to believe the grass is greener on the other side. If they can see trees or shrubs on the far side, they’ll attempt to jump any fence up to seven or eight feet high.

The Atwood Mansion’s fence varies in height from about four to seven feet. Adult moose have no problem negotiating a four-foot fence, but calves are much smaller than adults. Even fences less than three feet high can kill a month-old moose calf attempting to follow its mother.

Dissecting the Atwood disembowelments

The mansion’s latest victim, a moose calf, was found hanging over the fence in mid-July. The calf had struggled until the sharp points were buried to the hilt in its midsection, its front and rear hooves grazing the ground on either side of the fence. Several neighbors were unable to rescue the calf before it died.

About three years ago, Jessy Coltrane, a wildlife biologist with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, responded to a call from an adjoining property owner. A moose calf was hung up on the fence surrounding the Atwood Mansion. When Coltrane arrived, the calf was alive. However, it had been gutted by the spear-like points.  Slick loops of entrails hung to the ground. The calf’s mother and a second calf paced nearby. Both were highly agitated. Dodging repeated charges by the cow, Coltrane shot the mortally injured calf in the head to end its suffering.

This was also in July, as Coltrane recalls now, so the calves weighed about 100 pounds. She wasn’t able to lift the dead calf off the five-foot-high fence, even with assistance, so she cut it off the jagged points with a knife and dragged it away. Removing the calf left a large gout of blood and gore pooled under the fence.

The cow refused to leave the scene. The homeowner was distraught. Coltrane thought it would be a good deed to flush the blood off the fence and lawn, so she borrowed a hose. At that point, the cow decided to jump the fence again to chase Coltrane away from the dead calf. In a horrifying flash, Coltrane saw the inexorable wheels of fate turning. If the cow jumped the fence, her remaining calf would try to follow.

Coltrane sprayed the cow with the hose in a futile attempt to dissuade it, but you cannot turn an 800-pound moose from its mission. The cow jumped the fence. The calf made it halfway over, driving one of the spear points into its axilla, or “armpit.” It struggled for a couple of minutes, driving the point deeper, while the defensive cow made it impossible for Coltrane to help. Eventually, the calf lunged backwards off the fence, staggered under a nearby tree, and collapsed.

The cow jumped the fence again, hastening to protect the injured calf. Coltrane hoped for the best. But as the second calf struggled to rise, she saw part of its right lung protruding from a sucking chest wound. Trying to get close enough to humanely dispatch the second calf with a 12-gauge slug, Coltrane risked disemboweling herself on the fence as she scrambled back and forth, advancing and retreating from the furious cow several times. The shotgun blast sent the cow running for the far fence line. It cleared the fence and ran out of sight.

Afterwards, Coltrane talked to Jennifer Gunter, the mansion’s housekeeper who was also in charge of routine maintenance and the administrative assistant of the Atwood Foundation Board. Coltrane strongly recommended removing or capping the points on their fence. Gunter told Bob Reeves, the foundation president. The foundation capped the points on the short section of fence where the two calves were impaled. But hundreds of yards of fence were not modified. Another moose, a yearling bull, was impaled on the mansion’s fence about six months later. It died. Once again Coltrane talked to Gunter. Once again the fence was not fixed. Last week’s moose was impaled less than four feet from the previously capped section.

According to a neighbor, a fifth calf was impaled on the Atwood Mansion’s fence prior to the last four. It kicked itself off the fence. Because it walked away, the incident wasn’t reported. The calf almost certainly died a few days later from internal bleeding or, more likely, infectious peritonitis.

Other gruesome incidents

Metal palisade fences are rare in Anchorage. Most are in swanky neighborhoods, but institutions and businesses sometimes use a gothic-looking fence to imply a heightened level of security. Merrill Field has a metal palisade fence along the Glenn Highway and the Federal Bureau of Investigation surrounded its downtown office building with one.

Despite their rarity, metal palisade fences have impaled at least six other moose in Anchorage over the last decade. Most died.

A young bull attempted to jump the decorative palisade fence at the Boniface gate of Elmendorf Air Force Base, now Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson, a few years ago. The fence was a little too high, even for the belly slide. One spear-like point plunged into the hollow between the bull’s front shoulder and chest, and the weight of the moose drove it deeper. Fish and Game biologists were called, and we immobilized the moose with drugs. The only way to disengage the bull from the fence without heavy equipment was to saw off the embedded point. Luckily, the point had not penetrated its body cavity or torn any major blood vessels. The section of fence was unfastened and, with lots of help, the bull was lowered to the ground. The moose lived to jump other fences. Elmendorf personnel quickly capped the points on the fence to avoid impaling more moose. But saving a moose impaled on a fence is the exception.

My first experience with a moose killed by a decorative metal fence was in the mid-1990s on the Hillside. This was also the first, and last, time I chain-sawed a moose in half. A homeowner noticed a dead adult moose in his backyard during a mid-winter thaw. It had probably been dead for several weeks. Judging from its tracks, the moose had stepped over a four-foot-tall fence nearly buried in snow. In shifting its weight, the moose’s hooves settled deeper in the snow and one or more points punctured its abdomen.

This was early in my career, and I foolishly agreed to remove the slowly decomposing moose from the premises. The snow was deep and the fence complicated dragging the carcass with the truck or a winch. The only way to move the half-ton beast was to cut it into quarters and lift the pieces over the fence. My assistant, Jackie Kephart, volunteered to operate the chainsaw. Unfortunately for her, the moose’s midsection wasn’t completely frozen. We knew that, but the gory consequence didn’t quite register until the chainsaw starting throwing a stream of putrid blood, fermented stomach contents, and finely shredded body parts up Kephart’s leg and torso and over her shoulder.

We finished the job. I don’t remember what happened after that, but I hope I gave her the rest of the day off.

Even when a moose avoids impalement, palisade fences can prove deadly. Sometimes the moose almost clears the fence, but grazes the top rail with its lower legs. A slim lower leg can slide through the gaps between points, but often the fence catches one or both hooves. Without prompt human assistance, this can kill a moose quicker than a punctured abdomen. Moose aren’t designed to be suspended by their hindquarters. The part of a moose’s stomach where much of the digestion takes place, the rumen, is full of fluid, which can leak out the esophagus of an upended animal and be inhaled, drowning the moose in its own digestive juices.

Surely one of the shortest metal palisade fences in the world, in the backyard of a south Anchorage home, snared a yearling moose in spring 2010. The fence enclosed a children’s play area of about 10 by 20 feet, the two sections of fence merely bridging the space between the house and a tall wooden fence. Instead of ambling around the front of house, the yearling took a short cut, jumping into the play area then out the other side. The upright pales of the second fence snagged both hind hooves. The housekeeper didn’t know how long the moose had been suspended by its hooves, but it was hours if not a day or more.

I freed the moose by unscrewing the section of fence, but it was unable to rise. I left it in a comfortable position, hoping it would recover. I had to shoot the moose the next day, after it dragged itself on its belly into the neighbor’s yard.

Simple solutions

Reeves, the Atwood Foundation’s president, passed away in late 2009. Natasha von Imhof, a grant administrator who inherited Reeves’ responsibilities, said she hadn’t heard about moose impaled on the mansion’s fence until she got an email from Gunter last week about the latest incident. According to von Imhof, who has been the de facto president since Reeves passed away, none of the foundation’s board members had heard about the previous incidents. She also said the board had never received written notice of the problem from Fish and Game. Since the last incident, the board is looking into the feasibility of capping the sharp points with a solid rail, like the short section that was modified three years ago.

Metal palisade fences are expensive in Alaska, which limits the number of customers. AAA Fence, Inc., built the Atwood and Elmendorf fences and has erected other metal palisade fences at Anchorage residences. Roger Channing, a sales representative and project manager, estimated a metal palisade fence costs approximately $60 per foot, more for gates. Unfortunately, Lowe’s is now advertising cheap “decorative metal fencing” for do-it-yourselfers that will make gothic-style fencing more affordable in Alaska.

Channing said he “steers customers away” from the metal palisade fences with points. He’s heard of moose being impaled, but was more concerned about children, “especially with the amount of snow that can accumulate.” A six-foot fence can become a three- or four-foot fence. Channing advises customers to choose decorative fencing with a smooth top rail.

Despite its medieval semblance, a metal palisade fence isn’t difficult for a person to climb over. Any sense of increased security is a facade. That leaves aesthetics as the primary reason for choosing such a fence. I’m not inclined to tell anyone what kind of fence looks best with their home or place of work. But I wonder if a decorative metal fence is worth the pain and suffering.

Every Alaskan can recite a list of things that strike them as un-Alaskan. Of course, everyone’s list is different. Here are three items from my list: A sunny day in July. Naughty Monkey pumps. Gothic fences.

Here’s the thing. Erecting a metal palisade fence in Anchorage suggests you’re trying to look like you live somewhere else -- El Paso maybe. And fences are easy to fix. A metal palisade fence can be capped or the points can be removed, leaving a defanged fence that won’t torture and kill moose.

You don’t want moose in your yard, you say? Try a taller fence.

Rick Sinnott is a former Alaska Department of Fish and Game wildlife biologist. The views expressed here are the writer's own and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch. Contact him at rickjsinnott@gmail.com