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Moose are a lot of things: majestic, resourceful, an essential part of the ecological web. One thing they’re definitely not is domesticated animals. Judging by the fact that they keep trying to pet moose, however, it seems like some people haven’t gotten the message.
The latest incident occurred on March 11 in Grand Lake, Colorado, near the western entrance to Rocky Mountain National Park, after Colorado Parks and Wildlife got word that a cow moose and her yearling (a young moose) were hanging around near a local restaurant. When wildlife officers arrived to check up on the pair, they saw people approaching the animals, as well as “evidence of illegal feeding.”
While they were monitoring the animals, the officers received a call about a third moose, a yearling whose mother had left it, hanging around local residences and businesses. According to reports, the agency said, people were approaching and petting the newly-independent animal. When they arrived on scene, they found the moose was thoroughly habituated to human presence.
“Based on its comfort level around humans, they decided to relocate the yearling to a remote location outside of town,” CPW said in a press release.
There are a lot of reasons why petting a moose is a bad idea. For starters, moose are more dangerous than you might think, especially cows with calves: Last August, CPW counted four moose attacks across the state that year, including a 79-year-old who suffered severe trauma and a man who walked away with only minor injuries after a mama moose stomped on him. While moose attacks don’t necessarily command the same media attention that bear or cougar encounters do, they’re frequent enough that CPW created a video in 2018 warning people to keep their distance.
Younger animals can suffer from human encounters as well. Baby moose that become accustomed to humans are more likely to become “problem animals” in the future, hanging out around inhabited areas and putting themselves at risk for being hit by a car. Feeding them compounds the problem: As CPW noted in its press release, moose that gorge on food that wouldn’t naturally be available to them, like carrots, birdseed, hay, or salt blocks, may become ill or die.
Humans’ penchant for approaching baby animals is understandable. Some scientific evidence suggests we’re hardwired to find baby animals irresistible as a kind of knock-on effect of evolution. Zoologist Konrad Lorenz called it the “kindchenschema,” a collection of shared traits between human babies and young animals that activated a protective instinct in people: a large head, big eyes, a round body. Years of brain imaging studies have supported that idea.
But this is one instance where you might want to fight your natural instincts.
“We cannot stress this enough. Moose, especially calves, are not pets,” CPW wrote. “The best and the only way to view them is from a safe distance.”
Viewing Moose Safely: The Rule of Thumb
Wondering if you’re too close to a moose? Hold your arm out straight and try to cover the animal with your thumb. Can’t do it? Move back.