By Jenny Neyman
Becoming an orphaned moose calf in June in a busy bear corridor near the Kenai River a block away from the Sterling Highway — ramping up to the peak of summer traffic, no less — is not the luckiest start to life. But for one young bull moose calf, finding itself in the Sterling yard of animal lovers Joe Menz and Judy Warren may have been about the luckiest place to face that situation, as Menz and neighbor, Tim Mankee, attempted to capture the calf so it could be taken to the protective pens of the Alaska Moose Federation.
The calf and its mother have been hanging around Menz and Warren’s home on Barbara Street, in between Suzie’s Diner and the Sterling Senior Center, for the last two weeks, Menz said. The calf was born not far from the house — through the trees on a neighboring lot with an abandoned trailer. Cow and calf have been browsing through the gravel-road, forested neighborhood this spring, seeming to prefer Menz and Warren’s yellow house as a home base.
“He’s been here so long all he knows is the house. For two weeks I’d see him turn around, stare at the house. He’d go across the street, turn around, stare at the house,” Menz said.
He and Warren kept their two dogs under house arrest out of respect for the moose, but even
when the dogs would go out they and the moose seemed to grow used to each other, to the point where ever their younger dog, a female basenji named Sammie, didn’t feel the need to indulge any of her hunting-breed tendencies.
“She just wanted to play chase. But she knew that the moose was in trouble, she didn’t try to go after it. She was more curious than anything,” Menz said.
The cow seemed to be in poor health. She was small, only about 2 to 3 years old herself, making this calf likely her first. Menz said that she was eating fine, but didn’t seem to get much energy from her browsing, so he worried she was ill.
Menz and Menkee, a friend in the neighborhood, started “feeding” the moose, by cutting down branches and saplings of trees moose prefer to eat. It’s illegal to purposefully feed wildlife, and even negligent feeding — such as leaving food unsecured — can net a fine. But Menz and Menkee asked Fish and Game what they could and couldn’t do for the moose. Providing alfalfa or other non-natural browse is not allowed, but cutting down trees on their own property so the cow and calf could reach them is fine. So that’s what they started doing last week, with the moose chomping right through anything they cut.
“Her eyes and everything looked OK, but she wasn’t moving much — always just grazing, lying down, grazing, lying down. She’d be lying there and she’d be panting so hard, like she was ready to give labor,” Menz said. “The last day before she died she ran around here in circles, snorting and growling, like she was just trying to get her lungs to breathe. It scared me — I didn’t know what was going on — and the little calf just sat there watching her — didn’t know what was going on, either. You could see his front legs shaking.”
That was Thursday. On Friday morning Menz noticed the cow lying just over a little hump in the yard not far from the house.
“I saw him trying to get her up — she’s lying flat like she died in her sleep. I thought, ‘That’s weird, she’s not getting up or anything.’ And, oh, four hours later she’s still lying there, so I said, ‘That’s not right,’ and I went over there and she just had her head turned around in a lying position, not moving, and you could see where he had laid by her,” Menz said.
When it was clear the cow was dead, Menz called Alaska State Troopers and the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. When a moose dies on private property, it is, legally, the property owner’s large, potentially bear-attracting problem to deal with. It’s illegal for the property owner to harvest a moose under such conditions — not that the meat would be recommended as consumable when the cause of death is unknown or due to illness.
In this case, Menz and Warren had no means to remove the moose. But where resources allow, Fish and Game and other agencies try to help property owners with carcass removal, especially to avoid problems with bears. The Alaska Moose Federation was contacted and sent a crew to examine and remove the moose, Menz said. The cow apparently suffered from a respiratory problem, with cysts and fluid choking her lungs.
With the cow removed Friday the calf was on its own — except for the humans who couldn’t help but extend their soft spot for critters to the young bull.
“I care a lot about animals. I’m always trying to make sure there’s no suffering or anything going on,” Menz said.
He’s from Kodiak, originally, and though he’s perfectly aware of the realities of nature, he prefers life to go as well as possible for the creatures with which he comes in contact. He doesn’t hunt, nor fish just for sport — meat is food and should be transformed from living creature to dinner in as quick and humane a way as possible, as far as Menz is concerned.
“I have a grocery store to go to and I don’t have kids to feed. Hot dogs suit me just fine. Hot dogs, fish and rice,” he said.
In the 23 years he’s lived on Barbara, he and Warren have cared for a menagerie of animals. Especially now — at 60, with a bad back precluding him from working — keeping an eye on his pets and the wildlife passing through is a routine hobby.
Currently, the two have two dogs, a cat and a fluffly Australian rabbit they rescued about 10 years ago, which has since grown as absurdly large as the posh dog enclosure in which it lives.
“She’s a big girl. That’s probably the biggest hog bunny you’ve ever seen,” Menz said.
Menz, Warren and Mankee’s primary concern for the calf is bears. The neighborhood sees a lot of traffic from bears coming from the Kenai River to the south of the neighborhood. Particularly subadult bears, brown and black. “Hooligans,” as Menz calls them, with good reason. They’ve come right onto his back deck, knocked over his freezer and pressed their noses to the sliding glass door — scaring the bejeezus out of his cat.
“They come from across the river. After they leave their mothers the bruins are going to tear them up — the big ones — so they swim across the river and run the gauntlet here to make it over to the swamp (past the highway to the north). We get a lot of little 2-, 3-year-old hooligans,” Menz said.
Menz and Mankee asked Fish and Game if there was anything they could do to help the calf. Menz said that the Moose Federation would be willing to take it if they captured it before July 1 — after which time calves are usually thought to be old enough to fend for themselves.
So the hunt was on. Menz and Mankee rigged the gate of a chain-fenced dog enclosure with a
cord so that it could be pulled shut from a distance. Then they loaded the enclosure with fresh-cut moose browse and waited, hoping the calf would come for a snack.
It came close to the trap Saturday, but instead of going in the enclosure it stopped for a drink from a hubcap filled with water.
Sunday morning Menz looked out his back door and saw the calf near the cage. It walked in, Menz pulled the cord and the gate swung shut like a charm. Removing the calf, however, wasn’t as successful.
Menz and Mankee called Fish and Game to report they’d caught the calf, and the Alaska Moose Federation sent a crew Sunday afternoon to load it into a dog kennel. But in the commotion, the calf spooked, head-butted the approaching human, kicked the gate hard enough to bust open the latch and took off into the woods.
“You kind of grow close to them (the moose), and I thought, ‘Boy, he’s going to be (with the
Moose Federation), safe and everything — bingo, bango. But come down to the last few seconds and, bam, the guy turns his back for a second and the moose butts him and knocks the door open and he was gone,” Menz said.
Menz and Mankee are still hoping for a good outcome for the calf. Ideally, they still hope to capture it and get it to the federation enclosure before July 1. On Tuesday morning, Menz said the calf had come back to the yard, but hadn’t gone back into the enclosure.
“He laid down by our front window about 3 feet from the house. For some reason this house is his comfort zone. We cut down a couple more trees yesterday for him to munch, so he’s just kind of hanging around here,” Menz said.
If they don’t capture the calf again, Menz and Mankee are hoping he will join up with another cow and calf in the area. Barring that, the calf at least appears healthy, so maybe it will be able to survive on its own.
“It’s just those hooligan bears that will get him, if anything,” Menz said.
Being an orphan in the wildlife kingdom is a challenging start to life, but with a little luck and some humans rooting for it, Menz and Mankee are still hoping this one bucks the odds as well as it bucks open fence gates.
“We’ll put some fresh branches in there and try it again,” Mankee said. “If we don’t end up catching it again, maybe it’ll end up getting a foster parent and hang out here all summer.”
“He’s not thin or anything. We’re making sure he gets something to eat — cutting a tree or two down so he can have some tops to munch on. It’s such a tragic story, and I’ve been here 23 years and this is the first time I’ve seen this — with her (the cow) being so small and this being her first brew. But at least he’s healthy and knows how to take care of himself,” Menz said.
“Good things happen, too. It’s not all bad,” Menz said.