Dangerous love

A classic mad moose/Craig Medred photo

Loving Alaska’s wildlife too much has nearly cost a Nikiski woman her life.

According to Alaska State Troopers,  51-year-old Crystal Cook was trying to reunite a newborn moose calf and its mother on Monday when mom mistakenly mistook Cook for a predator.

Neighbors told troopers that the calf was “lying between Cook’s fence and an RV on the property,” the trooper report said. “Neighbors stated the cow was on the other side of the fence throughout the day, observing the calf. Witnesses noted the calf called the cow in tones of distress, and Cook attempted to move toward the calf to stimulate the calf to move.”

At that point, the cow moose did what momma moose do. It attacked what it perceived to be a threat to its calf.

“…The cow jumped the fence onto Cook’s property,” the report said, “and knocked her to the ground and began trampling her.”

The report did not say how long the moose spent stomping on Cook, but she was injured badly enough that she had to be air evacuated from the Kenai Peninsula community where she lives to an Anchorage hospital 55 miles to the north.

She is expected to live, but troopers reported she suffered multiple injuries.

Not the first

Moose have been blamed for the deaths of a number of people in Alaska in recent years, and dozens more have been injured.

When the Alaska Department of Fish and Game two decades ago put together a plan for  “Living with Wildlife in Anchorage, the state’s largest city,  it reported it was then receiving approximately “1,000 calls per year about nuisance or aggressive moose in Anchorage. More than 100 people are charged each year by moose. Many of these are ‘bluff’ charges that do not result in any physical contact between the moose and person.

“However, all of these are potentially serious, and five to 10 are estimated to result in human injuries each year. Since 1993, two people have been killed by moose. In addition, it is estimated that as many as 50 to 100 dogs are injured by moose each year, including those along trails designated for sled-dog racing. On average, about 10 aggressive moose are killed by wildlife authorities each year.”

The numbers have only gone up since then as the city’s population has grown, and the risks are no less outside of the urban zone than in it.

Moose are fickle creatures. They can be incredibly passive at times, and incredibly aggressive at other times. But there are times of the year – breeding season in the fall and even more so calving season in the spring – when they are more inclined to the latter than the former.

Troopers were asking Alaskans to stay away from the animals for safety, but there have always been those for whom affection trumps risk.

Timmy Treadwell

The late Timothy Treadwell, given name Tim Dexter, was probably the most famous among them. 

A kid from Long Island, N.Y., who became a resident of California, he spent the last 13 of the 46 years of his life engaged in summer pilgrimages to Alaska to try to make friends with the bears of Katmai National Park and Preserve.

And he thought he’d succeeded.

He petted the massive brown bears of Kaflia Bay on the Gulf of Alaska coast. He kissed some. He babysat the cubs of others to protect them from cannibalistic predatory bears so the sows could range wider in search of food.

He – and his friends and backers, some in California some in Alaska – were convinced he’d become some sort of “bear whisperer.”

That made him semi-famous. As a guest on the David Letterman talk show, he explained that the sometimes ferocious grizzly that Alaskans commonly refer to as “coastal brown bears” were just really big “party animals.”

He appeared on other TV shows in addition to Lettermen. He wrote a book titled “Among Grizzlies: Living with Wild Bears in Alaska.” To fund his adventures, he set up a non-profit called Grizzly People that operated out of a post office box in Malibu.

He claimed to be educating people about bears while protecting the bears from “poachers” in the wild, nearly 4.1 million acre park about 300 miles southwest of Anchorage.

There were no poachers. Bear experts (Treadwell was, according to one Associated Press story in the days after his death an “amateur expert”) said some of what Treadwell was teaching was more dangerous than educational.

He eventually proved them right. On Oct. 6, 2003, Treadwell was killed and eaten by a grizzly in Katmai. His girlfriend, Amie Huguenard, who he called to come help him fend off a bear attack was killed and eaten as well.

Treadwell and Huguenard had no weapons with which to protect themselves. Treadwell didn’t believe in them, didn’t think he’d ever need them.

The last stand

Among his last words, recorded on an audio of the attack, was his telling his petite, bordering on tiny girlfriend to hit the bear “with a pan.” The pan was of no use.

The deaths of Treadwell and Huguenard were not pretty. As bear authority John Hechtel has observed, “bears don’t kill; they eat.”

After Treadwell’s death, Larry Aumiller – who for years oversaw the Alaska Department of Fish and Game’s bear-viewing operation at the McNeil River State Game Sanctuary and Refuge – confessed to some understanding of what drove Treadwell.

When you are around bears for a long time, he said, it’s easy to start to think you can develop a relationship with them as humans did with dogs over time. Aumiller added that what dissuaded him from doing so was that he came to realize wild bears “don’t give a rip.”

They’re not programmed to desire a relationship with humans. The same applies to all Alaska wildlife. Behavior is governed by the laws of nature, not human rules or emotions.

Moose that become habituated to humans eventually accept that people are less dangerous than bears or wolves, but it’s a matter of degrees and the temperament of the day.

The moose that stomped Cook obviously didn’t understand she was trying to help because moose do not know how to distinguish the potentially predator humans from the intentionally helpful ones.

Moose know only to protect their calves or their calves will likely get killed. Lots of them do this time of year. Spring is not only a time of birth, but a time of death in the natural world.

Studies done around the state have found 50 percent to 70 percent and sometimes more of the calves born every spring are destined to die before winter. This is the way nature works.

And yet it is only human to want to help the young and defenseless. Cook is lucky that human nature didn’t get her killed. There is a lesson to be learned here.

CORRECTION: This is an updated version of an earlier story that misidentified the book written by Timothy Treadwell.


6 replies »

  1. Living in Eagle River for decades, we learned that mother moose use chain link fences as a kind of playpen for their calves. Mothers can easily jump the fence and leave the babies behind so they can browse or sleep in peace. The cow stays nearby and when she’s ready to let the calves nurse or move on down the trail, she jumps the fence and off they go. We saw this dozens of times in our yard and the yards of our neighbors.

    • Pennsylvania, my birthplace, has had a huge influx of coyotes and a rapidly growing number of black bears. Both dine on fawns. It seems that the does are having their fawns near houses and more populated areas than in the past. It would seem animals adapt much faster and easier than humans. Unfortunately, coyotes changed their habits almost immediately…….

  2. I viewed/saw lots of moose on the CR Delta, they can be very cranky and ornery. She is lucky to be alive

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