I first saw the magnificent bull elk crossing a grocery-store parking lot in downtown Banff, Canada, so I followed patiently until he reached the town’s edge. By then it was dusk, so I attached a flash to my camera. When he came within 30 feet I tripped the shutter. I heard a brief flurry of pounding hooves, and when I lowered the camera, there he was, towering over me in hormonal rage with his magnificent antlers poised about 3 feet from my stomach. I squawked and leaped behind a tree. He let out a long, slobbering hiss of aggravation, then proceeded on his stately way.
Stupid? Sure, but it could just as easily happen to you. That’s because the threat from rutting animals doesn’t always come from obvious species like moose, elk, or bison. Mountain goat billies and buck deer have been known to attack observers. I once had a desert bighorn ram pursue me like I was a ewe, which, besides being embarrassing, can be dangerous.
When animals accept your presence as an observer, it means you’re playing by their rules. Step out of line, and pay the penalty. Here are a few etiquette guidelines to follow when observing large and lustful animals:
- Give ’em room, for your safety and theirs. Use binoculars or telephoto lenses. Be considerate of the animals’ needs, and their potential for mayhem.
- Stay concealed when possible. Keep the outline of your silhouette obscured. Wear clothes that blend with your surroundings. If they see you, they may not attack or run away, but they’ll probably stop the behavior you’ve come to see.
- Stay attuned to animal reactions. Learn threat and aggression signals of the species you plan to observe. Back off when signaled.
- Don’t get between a rutting male and a herd of females. You may be viewed as a competitor, with the predictable consequences.
- Beware of females with young. Animals such as moose and bison are extremely protective of their calves and can become more so during the chaotic months of the rut.
- Pursue animals from a comfortable direction. Wildlife that favors steep terrain, such as bighorn sheep and mountain goats, prefer to be ap-proached from below. They usually retreat when approached from above.