Moose babiesPhoto by: Earthfire

In June a local rancher, Charlie Cook, came across the body of a female moose 150 feet or so off the road. She had apparently been hit by a car and dragged herself off the road before she collapsed and eventually died. As he investigated her body he saw a movement out of the corner of his eye. A tiny moose baby, perhaps a week old. He called for help and with several neighbors were able to catch him. One of the neighbors, Brent, had goats and offered to care for him. A couple of days later someone driving the same road spotted another baby hanging around her dead mother’s body–a little girl. She’d had twins.

With considerable difficulty Brent, Charlie and several other neighbors managed to catch the second calf too. They both were in poor shape. In addition to being dehydrated and starved they both had significant injuries. The boy, whom Brent named Hayden, had conjunctivitis and a huge corneal ulcer on his left eye- most of his eye was white. “Sunny” had a deep cut on her shoulder filled with maggots, and a swollen infected ankle. It would have been easy to give up on them; or to try to get someone else to put in the time and money. But Brent and his family made a different choice, and with their loving care the twins made it through the first few weeks.

The Department of Fish and Game has jurisdiction over Idaho wildlife, and their original plan was for the babies to be sent to a zoo as soon as they were fit to travel. But no zoo would have them… moose are notoriously difficult to raise and maintain in captivity. So plan B: Fish and Game asked if we could rear them in relative isolation from people in preparation for releasing them into the wild in the fall. I had doubts if they would survive in the wild without a mother for their first year, but hoped after they got here perhaps we could convince the officials to let us care for them through the winter. Rob Cavallaro of Fish and Game came to look over our property to see if we had a suitable place for them. Unfortunately for our small animals, he thought the Small Animal Garden, fenced in and with a pond, would be perfect. And so it was decided. The Small Animal Garden turned into a Large Animal Garden.

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The babies followed their bottles into a travel trailer and from Brent’s house were driven over to Earthfire with Jean in the back with them for comfort. It was love at first sight for both of us. They were so sweet. So vulnerable. So amazing in their miniature moose completeness. But my heart sank looking at their size and vulnerability. They were tiny and a bit raggedy looking. Goat’s milk is ok as a temporary supplement but not something they could thrive on. Would they grow enough in two to three months to be released into the wild, let alone into the approaching winter? Jean feverishly researched for a better substitute milk and found a place in Canada that made a product called MooseGro. Unfortunately they only made fresh batches to order, with a minimum of $700–what turned out to be four large garbage cans full of concentrated moose powder. Well–what choice was there? Money versus life?

While we waited for the MooseGro, we tried to clean the diarrhea off the back of their legs and researched further what they needed. Their bellies were swollen and their ribs showed like those of malnourished children. Did they have worms? Were they absorbing the nutrition? Did they need probiotics? Or aquatic plants which carried necessary bacteria to help them digest? One of our staff, Shannon, went to the Teton River to bring some, but they would have none of it. Perhaps they needed a mother to show them how to eat it, but the one thing I refused to do was put my head under water and pretend to eat them. Love has its limits.

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In the meantime, they had discovered the young willow and aspen trees we had planted in the garden to grow into shade trees. Moose eat ‘browse,’ the leaves and tips of branches from trees and bushes. At least they instinctively knew they had to supplement their diet. But the poor trees that Jean had so carefully nurtured the last two years, unwanted misshapen specimens from a nursery and finally starting to thrive, were being decimated. Mere stalks. So we fenced the babies out. We thought. In the morning we would find them back in, contentedly eating, or sleeping under what was left of their protection. Our compromise was to finally really seal off the treed area and start to bring them fresh-cut branches daily. Now their diet was browse plus two bottles each, four times a day, of goat’s milk. Our most excellent goat Adrianna was pressed into service and gave almost a gallon a day. Amanda, our media coordinator, almost willingly gave up her supply of fresh raw goat’s milk–the moose were that cute. But they needed more. So Brent would milk his goats and we would go down the road daily to pick up another gallon of fresh milk.

Finally the MooseGro arrived and they didn’t like it. Especially Sunny. We backed up and added just a little bit of the new milk to each bottle and gradually increased the amount after warming the bottles just so, blending the powder and goats milk. Eventually Sunny stopped turning up her long moose nose and accepted it. She was also fussy about nipples. They had to be just the right softness before she would accept them, or she would turn away in disgust. Or try to knock her brother off his nipple in case that was better. Brent told me to chew them until they were soft enough for her. So I did.

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Now we had the issue of no shade in the blazing August sun. We rented a backhoe and brought in a large covered cage with the door open, but they didn’t like it. We gave them a beach umbrella. They loved it, but it blew over in high winds, as did plywood. They needed a shade tree. One tall enough to give shade and have branches they couldn’t reach to decimate. We bought a large cottonwood tree and were rewarded by having them settle underneath with an almost visible sense of comfort, almost before we finished planting it.

Now I could relax knowing they had some protection from the elements. But a single shade tree wouldn’t protect them from thunderstorms and hail. During the first storm after they arrived, they went racing around their enclosure panting in terror. I couldn’t sleep thinking of them without a mother out in a storm. Shannon came up with the idea of a straw bale house. Perfect! Not the unwelcoming and unnatural cage we had in there. We bought roofing materials, picked up forty-four straw bales, and organized a straw bale moose house raising–a version of a barn raising. After a long day’s work, we had a cozy moose house. To us it was warm and quiet and inviting in there, but would they like it? Well there were a lot of moose droppings in there the next morning. In bad weather we would find them in there, curled up together, gently snoring…

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They were downing eight bottles a day of MooseGro and eating more and more browse. Jean would disappear under the browse he was carrying for them and still it wasn’t enough. We couldn’t keep up with the demand. Volunteers joined in, and between us we brought them fresh browse twice a day. They need it fresh, and Amanda came up with the idea of putting it in a garbage can of water, like a moose bush. We filled two large cans daily. They thrived. They grew. They got plump.

We still had worries. Hayden’s eye infection had not cleared up in spite of twice daily drops. Would he be blind in one eye?

What would his chances be then? Sunny’s ankle remained swollen despite a course of antibiotics. The vet came out and lanced it. Large amounts of a white soft substance oozed out as he squeezed. He said he hoped it was infection and not cartilage–that she might become lame. In spite of soaking, the lancing sealed up and her ankle re-swelled. How would a lame moose fare in the wild? We didn’t want to give antibiotics again. It hadn’t worked and had only made her diarrhea worse. So we hoped that good nutrition and a stress free life would help her immune system fight it.

Slowly, the swelling decreased. Slowly, the white spot on Hayden’s eye diminished. And not so slowly, they grew. I would swear they grew six inches each day between morning and night. They were very different personalities, he being sweet, she being more alert, skittish and intelligent. But when I came toward the enclosure with their warm bottles of milk and called “moosie babies,” they would come racing from wherever they were, and fight over the bottles. Downed in seconds. Burps. It was hard to get just the right opening size in the nipple so that it didn’t discourage them by being too tight or choke them by being too big.

I always called them when I fed them. Should we need to find or catch them once they were released, coming when called might be a great help. Plus it was a joy to see them racing toward me in their strangely graceful, gangly amazing moose movements.

As it turned into October, it became harder to find browse with leaves. Now we worried–would they learn to eat branches? Would that be enough nutrition without the eight bottles a day of milk? They were going to be released into the wild, into a strange place, without a mother’s protection or wisdom. Would they get enough calories to grow as fast as they were? And enough calcium to grow strong bones? At the same time as adjusting to a strange place, to new forage without leaves? As the cold came on and they needed even more calories to deal with the cold as well as to grow? Brent and I spent hours discussing alternatives and sharing them with Fish and Game.

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During this whole time, they would look to us questioningly as they would to their mother for information about how to behave, what to do. I could feel their seeking for input. When we attended to a branch of browse, they would eagerly attend to it too, using us as a guide as to what to eat; what to notice. I would have given anything, the breath of my body, my last food. But I couldn’t give them what they needed–teach them how to be a moose. We could only feed and feed and feed, to give them strength.

Then we got a message from Fish and Game, the release date would be October 21st. At the very time I wanted to feed them more, I had to start weaning them. Their cries when they saw me were pitiful. I am not tough-minded enough for this. I could only manage it because I knew to cut them off suddenly would be even worse. I had them down to one bottle a day when Rob came to get them. It was obvious that he too cared very much about their welfare. He was also complimentary about our care, how good they looked, and how hard it was to keep young moose alive. He thanked us for our time, funds and resources and said that it wouldn’t have been possible without us. They followed their bottles into the trailer… to their new life and fate.

Brent came for the goodbye. We had done all we could. We sent them off plump and well-furred. We had loved them in the best human way we could. Everyone concerned had given time and love and thought and care to these two little creatures. It seemed half the community was involved in some way. I would go to the dentist–how are the moose? Get a phone call–how are the moose? There was something about them. They are iconic creatures. They are babies. But there was also this incredible sweetness. They would curl up together, brother and sister, sleeping gently in the sun. There were their impossibly-long eye lashes; their soft brown eyes, their long, long legs folded in amazing ways as they lay down; their vulnerability. The human community of Earthfire and Teton Valley sends our loving energy and prayers for an easy adjustment and a long and happy life. Those little babies broke and enlarged our hearts. May they have moose babies of their own and the pleasure of nurturing them to a safe adulthood.

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