Rocky Mountain Elk
When I began working at the zoo, I was somewhat intimidated by them. After all they can reach 1,000 pounds. Females average 530 while males average 730 with the bull having 3-5 foot antlers. There were two females that had been bottle-raised by keepers in the early years of the zoo and therefore greeted you at the gate. That was Ladybug and Duchess. Their paddock was muddy (a foot deep) at the gate and here I was in thick sucking mud trying to get through the gate with 6 buckets (5 gal ea) of feed or bales of hay all the while two tame elk are nudging at you for affection or to stick their heads in the buckets. No, I wasn’t carrying all 6 buckets! I would carry two at a time making multiple trips to the work vehicle. It was quite challenging. Then there were females that weren’t hand-raised and would stomp their hooves, charging with nostrils flared. Always, Ladybug or Duchess would protect me by chasing and biting off the attacker. They even stayed by my side when the bull was present, which I was grateful even though he never showed any aggression.
Ever have a 500+ pound elk step on your foot? It didn’t break any bones but sure made me limp. That was one time I was happy to be in mud as my foot sank in and cushioned the blow.
The elks were moved a few years later to a larger field because as browsers they can decimate a paddock of trees and vegetation in no time. The new are was less muddy.
Did you know that they are “fence testers?” Oh yes. It was on occasion that they found a weak pole and pushed down the fence only to walk up the hill to the owner’s house peaking in the picture window as if to say “hello.” Ladybug and Duchess were master minds at getting out but with a perimeter fence, they never went far. They would graze in front of the goats and deer flaunting their escape!
Birthing season came and my job was to keep an eye on the rear ends of the females. If feet were pointing the wrong direction, I had to quickly notify the owners. I assisted in delivering several breach births. Some were successful and others were beyond our control. One success story was with Duchess. After getting the owner and all our medical and birthing supplies, we approached her. We gave her a mild sedative to get her to relax and roped her to a tree while the owner steadied her up front, two of us worked the breach baby out and cleaned his airway. Duchie wasn’t aware that she gave birth and would not acknowledge him until I began making elk baby mewing sounds. It’s like her instincts kicked in and she began cleaning and licking him. Within no time she was bonding with her baby. Ladybug had several difficult births. The vet explained she had a small birthing canal. I will spare you the horrible details.
It was always crushing to me to bring a dead baby to the woods and through the years, it only got easier by a smidgen. We never buried the animal but believed in allowing the scavengers of the woods (150 acres) to feed on the carcass. I would go back years later to pick up the skulls or bones to use in our educational programs.
Ladybug was the most affectionate with me often nuzzling her head against my chest while I scratched her neck and ears.
When giving zoo tours, and if they weren’t milling about the front fence, I just had to call “Duch-ess! Hey Ladybug, hey Ladybug” and they were come running with the others following.
The bull, Lawrence W. Elk (get it?) became familiar with my calls, too. I would only scratch his face and neck while on the OTHER side of the fence. I never trusted him. When I wanted him front and center, I would call like his bugle “Law-rence” in the same low-high pitch of the elk. He was a beautiful bull with 6×6 antlers. I’m not sure where he went after the zoo retired. Although, this is a memorial page, I’m posting a photo as a tribute to him.
When I had the chance to visit my girls at their new home, I jumped at it. The state requires TB testing of captive deer annually and since the zoo owner, Butch, is experienced in tranquilizing he’s hired by those needing this service. The test is administered by the state’s vet assisted by his technician. I tag along to take photos, interact with my girls, pick up the darts and assist. Friday, November 18 we traveled to the ranch. To get the elk over to us, I called “Duch-ess” and she came, remembering my voice. The state’s vet was in awe and couldn’t believe it. He read her test and we didn’t even have to tranquilize her. All the better due to her age. The “team” was just out here three days earlier darting & administering the test while I was just present for the second part of the procedure. On Tuesday, November 15th, the owner made the decision to euthanize Ladybug due to her declining health. The vet’s technician described the ordeal as emotional. She said as they administered the meds in the field to Ladybug, the herd was calling to her. The tech said it was the saddest moment she’s ever experienced and could never do that again. Funny how animals know when one of their own is sick and dying.
I’m thankful for Ladybug’s full life (18-20 yrs) and how she touched mine.
Here are some photos of Ladybug, Duchess and Lawrence. Yes, Duchess is still hanging in there although you can see the white hairs in her mane. She looks good for an old gal! And here’s hoping Lawrence is well wherever he is.