It's a grey, overcast fall day here in Alaska, and there is a light breeze fluttering the green and gold birch leaves outside my window. My dog Finn is laying on my feet, a silky, comforting warmth. I am contemplating my errands for the day, and for no reason that I can think of, I am suddenly thinking of moose encounters.
I love moose. Some people I know say they look like they were made by committee, with all mismatched parts; but I find them elegantly adapted to their habitat, and strangely charming. That's when they're safely at a distance or on the other side of some barrier, of course; close to, I find them quite scary. I've seen video of man killed in Anchorage several years ago by an enraged cow. Unfortunately, the cow had been harassed and pressured all day long by various students and others on the U of A campus, who had gotten WAY too close and put far too much pressure on her for hours, taking pictures and so on. She was minding her own business, just trying to make a living, trying to get enough forage to survive the harsh Alaskan winter. She was browsing on some plants near a University building, and the unfortunate target of her ire happened to exit a door near her without realizing she was there. He was far too close to her, and though he never even glanced in her direction, she had had enough. Having been pressured and harassed all day long - without malice, but also without thought for the potential consequences - she wheeled toward the man, striking him in the back of the head with one large hoof. He went down like a sack of potatoes; I suspect he was dead before he hit the ground. She stomped on him for a few seconds, kicking at him, but he was limp as a rag doll. I don't think he ever knew what hit him.
It was a tragic thing all around; the moose was killed by Fish and Game, and of course it's a terrible thing that the man died, really through no fault of his own. He just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, and made the mistake of not looking both ways before exiting the building.
Most of the time when I have moose encounters they're much more benign - but I'm not foolish enough to stroll out to my truck if there's a moose in my yard or my driveway. I've several times called in "moose" to work: "Hi, it's me, I can't get to my truck because there's a moose on my deck. I'll be in as soon as she clears off." There used to be a cow that inhabited this neighborhood pretty regularly, though I've not seen her this year. Many times I've seen her scat in my driveway, or a hollow in the snow where she's bedded down outside my fence. Once I found a spot where she'd urinated next to my truck; there was a hole burned through 3 solid inches of ice, leading me to a new favorite expression: "Man, that's just hotter than moose piss!"
Another time I pulled in to my driveway and found her at the top of it, industriously stripping leaves off the trees. I parked halfway up my drive, got out a book and read until she moved off (fortunately I'd just been to the bookstore, so I was well-prepared.) Once she was bedded down about halfway down my drive; I had a safe shot to the truck, but I had to back down my driveway (which is on a hill) with extreme care; she came surging to her feet the minute I started the engine, but at that point seemed in no hurry to vacate the driveway. Instead she stood browsing on my birches for what seemed like forever, her rump end in the strike-path of the truck. Well, I'm not running a moose down for the sake of saving five minutes on my commute, so I waited. What the hey, my truck could stand a few more minutes of warm-up anyway, right?
The scariest encounters have been when I've had one or more dogs with me. One early morning, I let the dogs out into my back yard for their first stretch-and pee of the day. There was a sudden explosion of furious barking, of a tone that any dog owner knows means trouble. I yanked the door back open and saw a large and furiously enraged cow charging my fence, the dogs in scattering pandemonium in front of her, with only a thin barrier of chain-link between them. At that instant it looked flimsy and insubstantial as gauze to my horrified eyes.
"Crap! Finn! Ali!" I screamed. "Get in here! Raven! LEAVE it! Kenzie!" Meanwhile I'm jamming my feet into the boots by the door and running down the porch steps dressed only in an over-sized chamois shirt and a pair of Sorrels. I grab the first dog I come to (Raven) and pitch her up on the deck, where she has the good sense to go into the house, closely followed by Ali - who is not easy to catch, being swift and nearly hairless, but who has started to see the wisdom of backing off the moose cow, so I am able to make a lucky grab and heave him toward the house. Kenzie goes in on her own, following the other dogs, but Finn will NOT come off. Meanwhile Raven has turned around for a second look, so I dart up and slam the door in her face, lest they all decide to come out and rejoin the fray, and then I spin around and run out into the yard.
"Finn! LEAVE it, I said! Finn, God damn it! Get in the house!" I am shouting, slipping in the snow as I try to snatch any part of his body. Finn is dodging back and forth, fence-fighting the cow, barking furiously. Spit is flying from his lips as he leaps at the fence, springing off of it and evading my grasp again as I slide in the snow. The cow has twice kicked the fence with her powerful hind legs - making the chain link sway and bow alarmingly, chinging and rattling along its length - and has now turned face-on to Finn, dodging back and forth, ramming the fence with her head and striking with her lethal front feet, trying to find a way through to kill him. She is making a frightening sound - it's nothing I have ever heard before or can ever describe, something weirdly between a snort and a growl, a deep, thoroughly enraged sound that immediately raises the hair on the back of my neck. With one part of my brain I register that she has two nearly-yearling calves with her, hanging back slightly in the woods. This makes her even more ferociously dangerous, and as she rams the fence again with her head I am seriously afraid she'll come through it.
"Finn, God damn it! Get in the house!" I shriek at him, making another abortive grab at him, putting a hand down in the snow as I lose my footing. But by some miracle my fingers snagged just slightly in his tail, breaking his concentration enough that he finally hears me as I scream "Leave it, LEAVE it!" at him. He registers the fear and anger in my voice and breaks off, running at last up the porch steps, still growling and casting backwards glances as I follow after him.
"Shit! Shit!" I am panting as I shove the door open and stumble into the house, slamming the door behind us all. I can still hear the fence ringing and shaking as the cow rams it and I run into the bathroom, where I can look out the window at her. The fence is rippling and swaying, but it holds. Now that the dogs are gone, her ire dissipates quickly and she trots off into the woods, snorting and blowing, the calves high-stepping in front of her as they vacate my property.
I go to my living room and collapse on the couch, shaking and panting from adrenaline and exertion. Finn is panting too, but he looks thoroughly pleased with himself. The dogs mill about my feet, butting against me, all of them keyed up, but only Finn looking like he'd like another go, because that was fun.
"Damn dog," I say to him, petting him shakily. "When I say leave it, I mean leave it now," I tell him sternly. He grins at me, waving the luxuriant plume of his tail.
Next moose we see, he's not going to leave it. I know he'll do just as he did this time: race in barking furiously, leaping up to snatch at her face, dodging back and forth trying to grab a leg.
Well, he comes by it honestly, I will say. His mother, Keetna - a lovely bitch, a favorite patient, and owned by a friend of mine - is also hell on wheels - er, paws - when it comes to moose. J, her owner, told me this story.
One year, when Keetna was herself less than a year of age, J was walking with her step-daughter down a street in Girdwood, where they had a condo. J had Keetna on a leash, as any sensible person would with a Border collie puppy. It was summer time, a pleasant day. There was a moose browsing on some shrubs on the far side of the street, well off the road. J kept a weather eye on it, but it was peacefully engaged in its breakfast and they walked by without incident. There were other people here and there out on the street, but no one near the moose; everyone was giving it a wide berth. There was enough distance that J thought little of it, beyond taking care to leave it room and keep an eye out for any signs of irritation from the moose.
A while later, on their return down the street, J retraced their path. The moose was still decimating some home-owner's bushes, ignoring all else. About the time they were abeam the moose - or perhaps just a little past it - J catches motion from the corner of her eye and turns her head in time to see the moose charging out of the yard strait at them.
"Run!" she shouts, and run her step-daughter does - unfortunately, right down the middle of the street, the easiest possible path for the moose to follow and run her down - but luckily for her, the moose goes after J instead. J leaps into the woods, dragging Keetna, and dives behind the paltry shelter of a small black spruce. These are thin, weedy trees, some of them little more than a large sapling with a bristle of short, needled branches sticking randomly out from the sides. The tree J has taken refuge behind is one such, and it is little cover; the moose doesn't seem to think much of it, either, as she comes after J, making that hair-raising sound of rage and striking at J with her huge front feet. The spruce is narrow enough that the cow can strike at J from either side of it, and she does, her long legs whipping her sharp-toed hooves at J with bone-crushing force. J stumbles back from the strike zone, tripping over the uneven footing and dropping Keetna's leash.
The result is instantaneous. Keetna, freed from restraint, leaps snarling into the cow's face, her razoring teeth aiming for the cow's nose. The astonished moose rears back for a moment, her attention diverted from J to the snarling, snapping black-and-white fury in front of her. Keetna presses her advantage, using the moose's hesitation to leap at her face again. The moose turns on her haunches and runs. Keetna runs after her. Julie regains her footing and runs after them both, screaming at the top of her lungs, "Keetna! Get back here!"
The amazed neighbors look up to see a moose cow galloping down the street, with a small Border collie in hot pursuit, and J - herself a runner, and no doubt spurred by adrenaline - bringing up the rear, pelting down the road after them at top speed and screaming for her dog to come back now.
A short period of time later - although I imagine it seemed like an eternity to J - the moose has enough of a lead that Keetna breaks off her pursuit. She comes loping jauntily back to J, all smiles, and clearly pleased with herself. It was a lucky thing in one sense that Keetna was there, as she may well have spared J being stomped by the moose; on the other hand, it instilled in Keetna the absolute certitude that she is the Queen and Commander of all moose everywhere - a dangerous confidence to have.
So far that hasn't led Keenta into any serious trouble, although it's been a near thing at least one other time. That was a time when I was taking care of Keetna for J, when J was out of town. It was winter, and the dogs had all been out (on a runner in my front yard) and then back in and had their breakfast as I got ready for work. I was taking Keetna to work with me, and had gathered all my stuff. The dogs had been restless, but I'd attributed their subterranean growls and uneasy fidgets to the fact that we had a "strange" dog in the house - not that she was unknown to any of them, but that she didn't normally live with us.
At that time, I had a dog run along the side of my house, but it did not enclose my back door, as it now does; on that day it was empty, since the dogs stay inside while I am gone. I am thinking about the day ahead of me, paying little attention as I open the door and let Keetna outside to go to the truck; she's a well-behaved dog, so it naturally never occurs to me to leash her for the 15 yard walk to my truck. Keetna trots down the steps of the deck and about three feet into my yard and then starts barking furiously.
"Keetna, knock it off, you'll wake the neighbors," I say absently, juggling keys and lunch as I step out onto the porch, pulling the door to behind me. One second before I slam it shut - locking us out - I see movement from the corner of my eye.
There is a moose bedded down at the far end of the dog run. It comes surging to its feet, hackles up across its big shoulders, eyes slitty with annoyance, ears laid flat back along its skull.
"Crap! Keenta! Get in the house!" I yell. Keetna responds to this piece of advice by taking a short, stiff-legged charge at the moose, who is now rounding the corner of the dog run. Keetna and the moose are now about ten or twelve feet apart, a distance the moose can close in one stride.
"Keetna! Come!" I shriek, sounding a bit unhinged, even to my own ears. The moose, distracted, looks at me, now. I try to figure out how long I have to let Keenta come darting back into the house before I have to jump back and slam the door - or if I can just leave the door open, hoping the moose will not enter the house. As an added bonus I am imagining J's voice telling people "Keetna is lame because my vet broke her with a moose." I am thinking: Great, the first time I board Finn's mother at my house and I let her tangle with a moose and maim herself to death.
I plant one foot inside and the other on the deck, and try once more.
"Keetna! Get in the house right now!" I bellow, pointing furiously inside; Keetna looks at me, then back at the moose, who is now hesitating: still blowing down its nostrils in irritation, its attentions are divided and it is not advancing. Apparently figuring her work here is done, Keetna trots jauntily back into the house, where I slam the door and let out a whuff of relief. Keetna gives me a glance of sparkling delight, clearly saying: Did you get a load of that? See how I made that moose back down? I am QUEEN of all moose. They do as I tell them or they feel my Border collie wrath.
I go call work and tell them I'll be late, as I am currently trapped in the house by a moose. They are not completely astonished to hear this; it's an uncommon occurrence but not unheard-of. I peek out about 10 minutes later, but the moose - who has now been joined by a companion - is happily mowing down on my birch trees. I'm standing inside at the window, thinking: The willow. Eat the willow. But no: They like my birch.
I'm late to work that day, but in the end it's all fine. Keetna's confidence in her moose supremacy is unshaken - although my nerves are less steady than hers in this regard. No one gets hurt. The moose have a nice breakfast. And my first client, who I have kept waiting for 30 minutes, gives me a twinkling smile.
"Nowhere but Alaska can you be late to work with the excuse that there's a moose on your porch," he says, but as my staff has craftily plied him with coffee, he is quite cheerful about the whole thing. I'm telling you. Moose have NO consideration for other people's schedules.
Ah, well. Part of life in the Greatland. But realistically, I prefer my moose either served up on a plate or safely on the other side of some sturdy barrier (preferably in a photogenic pose easily shot from my balcony or other suitable vantage points). But I'll be extra careful in the next few weeks; in fall and spring they move around more, so I can just about guarantee that somewhere along my daily path, moose will be on the loose.