Thursday, July 30, 2009

Tame Moose


A story in today’s Wildlife Disease News Digestcould not have come at a stranger time. It is about a tame moose controversy in the state of Vermont and concerns a “rescue” of an injured moose by a man named David Lawrence. There are pictures to go with it. The big coincidence is that I have just spent two days writing first drafts of chapters about tame moose for a new work that I am calling Of Moose and Men. I hope to submit it to a publisher by late fall or early in the New Year.

The current story comes from a news source called, which bills itself as “Vermont’s Trusted News Source for 55 years.”

You can read the full Moose Triggers Controversy 28th July story here
It boils down to an account of how Mr. Lawrence has bonded with a moose that he has called Peter after he nursed it back to health following an attack by dogs when it was newborn. Mr. Lawrence is quoted a saying "I just feel this is my calling-- Pete and I love each other."

The problem is that owning a moose is illegal in Vermont and the rest of the story is a discussion of what happens next.

What is not discussed is that Mr. Lawrence may not know how lucky he will be if the moose is transferred to a zoo. This animal is a bull, and every year stories appear in news outlets about people being killed or injured by members of the deer family coming into rut and attacking people. The rut is not far off for moose – a month or two at most.

Tame moose are nothing new. Over two hundred years ago Canadian explorer Samuel Hearne noted that moose were
“the easiest to tame and domesticate of any of the deer kind...”
There are plenty of archival photos of moose around. One in the Winnipeg Free Press of 1908 showed a buggy being pulled by two young bulls. I am lucky to have been able to photograph the paper before it fell apart from old age. Others pre-date that and show settlers using moose harnessed to a travois for hauling household goods. At one time the ownership of a moose was made illegal in Finland because bandits of mooseback could easily escape police on horses.

The stories I am working on concern moose named Petruska, Castor and Pollux that were cared for on a ranch just outside Cochrane, Alberta. I was called there by owners Miles and Beryl Smeeton many years ago to help out with problems. Here, Miles is grooming Petruska. I’m not going to spoil the story now, but there were some amusing moments. One of these, amusing to look back on, but hair-raising at the time, occurred when Petruska and I played ring-around-the spruce-tree as she wanted to attack me for approaching her new-born calf too closely.

Saturday, July 25, 2009

Moose Jaw Festival of Words


You never know what will happen when the media get hold of you. In this case what happened was good. A reporter form the Moose Jaw Times Herald asked me one question after the second of my talks at the Festival of Words in Moose Jaw. All he wanted to know was my affiliation, so I told him it was the University of Saskatchewan. I didn’t tell him I had retired. He went on his way, and I thought no more about it until I got an email form Donna Lee Howes, the artistic director of the event.

It turned out that the reporter, Carter Haydu, had filed a story and picture about my presentation on the 20th of July, the day after the event. His fancy had obviously been caught by the folk tale about how hippos became aquatic animals. This link shows you what he wrote.

He did simplify the story somewhat, which is understandable given that I had used the KiSwahili name for the hippo, which is Kiboko, and the native name for the God who lived among the snow-capped peaks of the mountains, which is Ngai. My story centred around Uganda, so the mountains were the Ruwenzoris but of course if it has been in Kenya I could have chosen Mount Kenya or even Kilimanjaro

Friday, July 24, 2009

Moose Jaw Festival of Words


Just back from a magical time in Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan (Yes, there really is such a place, and it has an amazing history linked to Al Capone).

I attended the Festival of Words, a three-day event dedicated to words in every imaginable form. It all starts with a film, then moves to an aptly named Readception on the first night. It is here that those attending get a chance to visit old friends and make new ones while listening to short readings from half a dozen or so of the authors who are set to strut their stuff over the next two-and-a-half days.

The Friday and Saturday are filled with readings and performances from a long list of authors in every imaginable genre. You can see the list by going to the Festival Web site.

I was lucky enough to be invited to read from The Trouble With Lions but, as usual, I told rather than read. The business of telling came to me when I was advised by Henry Woolf, long-time Saskatoon resident, well-known Shakespearean actor and friend of the late Harold Pinter advised me to use it, rather than straight reading, and it seems to have worked. This gave me the chance to show slides and tell stories rather like the Cantastoria tellers of Europe in the Middle Ages, or the itinerant Kamishibai tellers of the Orient who used picture boards to enhance their events. What is PowerPoint but a modern storyboard?

I was also honoured to be able to represent the Saskatchewan Writers Guild at the Friday luncheon when a formal plaque to the Guild was presented by Saskatchewan's Poet Laureate and long-time Moose Jaw resident Robert Currie (not to mention Festival chairman) . This year’s Festival was dedicated to SWG in honour of its 40th year. It is the oldest such Guild in Canada. There is lots more about the Guild on their web site here.

In my brief talk after the presentation I quoted lines about words and writing. Here is one of them from Franz Kafka.
"A book must be the ax for the frozen sea within us."

The Festival Of Words certainly thaws to the core when it comes to books and words. If you haven't been to one, think about it for mid-July next year. It's worth the effort, many times over. Here's the baited hook. Saskatoon's Yann Martell will be there as a featured presenter. Have you booked your hotel room yet?

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Dogs as Foster Mothers and Wet Nurses


Neat story on the Wildlife Disease News Digest listserv this morning. It was headlined as Dog wet nurse saves panda cubs in China. Good thinking on the part of the keeper staff at the Taiyuan Zoo in northern China's Shanxi province led to a quick resolution of the problem when red panda cubs (a much smaller relative of the iconic panda that we all know) was abandoned by their mother right after birth. This AP photo shows the little bitch with its two unusual fosterkint.

Twenty-eight years ago I organized the same thing with a bear cub that came to the zoo in Saskatoon. It still had its umbilicus attached, and its eyes had not yet opened. A black and white bitch had recently whelped at the University of Saskatchewan’s Animal Resource Centre and the director, Dr. Ernie Olfert was kind enough to let me take her to the zoo. She was soon mothering the cub as well as her own four pups. Keeper Sharon Latour kept an eye on things and the cub did well, and was soon playing with the pups. The bitch continued to care for it until it was about six weeks old, when she obviously decided that its sharp claws and even sharper teeth were too much for her. She abruptly weaned the entire “litter” overnight.

If you want the whole story you can find it in the International Zoo Year book of 1982 (Haigh, J.C. and Latour, S., 1982. A Domestic Dog as a Foster Mother for an American Black Bear Cub (Ursus americanus). International Zoo Yearbook, 22, 262‑263.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Ivory and Rhino Horns Hidden in Coffins

Yet another poaching story out of Africa has appeared on the BBC webs site. This one involved both ivory and rhino horn found in coffins on a flight that originated in Mozambique and was bound for Thailand and Laos. There was no mention of any DNA analysis, but these days the source of both items can be accurately determined through careful study. Perhaps that information will follow.

In this case 300 kg of ivory from 16 tusks and an unstated number of rhino horns were seized.
The accompanying AP pictures appeared on the web site, but it not clear if they were file pictures or from the current seizure. Not that it matters a whole lot – the point is that it happened at all. The shipment’s value was estimated by Kenya Wildlife authorities to be worth about one million dollars (US)

As most people now know the Western Media’s obsession with rhino horn incorrectly alleged aphrodisiac properties is completely wrong (although I’m sure it sells newspapers). As this lot was bound for the Far East it is virtually certain that the intended use of the horn was in traditional medicine. In a 1993 undercover survey by Judy Mills for TRAFFIC International, it was found that 70% of South Korean doctors consider rhino horn to be an essential part of their medical armament, despite clear evidence to the contrary. (See Mills, Judy A. Market Under Cover: The Rhinoceros Trade In South Korea. A Traffic Network Report. TRAFFIC International, 1993.)

This report and another in April about 500 kg of ivory poached in Kenya’s famous Amboseli NP highlight the continued struggle in Africa to preserve the small fraction of the charismatic wildlife of the continent in the face of organized crime, rapid population growth and ever-increasing hunger. This April report stated that sentencing of the two culprits, who pleased guilty to illegal possession of ivory would take place on May 4th, but I have not been able to track down any news. If past records are anything to go by the sentences will have been paltry. It would be interesting to know for sure.

It would be nice to think that my own picture of a rhino and their accompanying oxpeckers was not the last I will take of my favourite species.

Friday, July 10, 2009

Wildlife contraception


Here we are in beautiful Victoria, British Columbia, housed in the student accommodations at the University of Victoria and taking in as many stories as we can at the annual national conference of the Storytellers of Canada/Conteurs du Canada.

Of course the stories have been marvelous, and we look forward to the main even tomorrow night when tellers from across Canada will enthrall us with their Tales At Eventide

From wildlife point of view there is something else just as intriguing. The place is overrun with rabbits. Rabbits of every imaginable colour. The key is that there are no native rabbits on this island. We have been told that the whole thing may have started when one or two folks decided that their Christmas bunny, purchased for the family, may not have been as convenient a pet as had been envisioned. Or maybe it was a real live, as opposed to chocolate, Easter bunny. Anyway, there is lots of green grass on the campus, so what could be a nicer place to dump dear Cuddles. Lots of grub, equable climate, no problems. Of course one became two as someone else had the same idea.

Biology 101 kicked in. Two became more than four, as these creatures breed like… well, like rabbits. The whole thing put me in mind of Hitchcock's movie The Birds, although it hasn't quite reached that level yet. Given time and biology...?

In New York surplus reptiles, especially crocs, are dealt with by what is called Hydrotherapy. This means that they are flushed down into the city’s sewer system. Not an option for bunnies.

What to do? Now come island culture.
As one of our storytellers related this morning, Vancouver islanders, and especially Victorians, tend to be a bit eccentric, so the notion of a control program, or rabbit stew, is out of the question. So much so, that there are posters everywhere asking us to leave the rabbits alone.

Surplus deer are almost as bad a problem in many island communities. They are in gardens and parks from Comox to Nanaimo, through Duncan and in Victoria. Thank good ness they don’t breed like rabbits. Can you imagine!

Someone is going to have to deal with this one, and the politics is going to be the biggest headache. Thank goodness for retirement!

Friday, July 3, 2009

Canoeing in Prince Albert NP


Just back from a wonderful canoe cum fishing trip in Canada’s Prince Albert National Park. We chose to make a circular trip through what is known as the Bagwa route. The sunset across the lake was reward in itself.

The trip involves a two-hour paddle across the western side of Kingsmere Lake, one of the largest in the park, a quiet trip for forty minutes or so up a shallow, weed-filled channel into Bagwa Lake and an overnight stop there after hopefully catching a supper’s worth of walleye, known more commonly as pickerel.

From here it was to be a short glide through Lily lake, a portage around the base of a slight rise, some more fishing (for Northern Pike, also known by several derogatory names such as slough shark and hammer handle in Claire and another portage, this time across a board walk over a swamp, back into Kingsmere and base camp at South End.

We had first done the trip over thirty years ago and it is a real pleasure to be able to relate that little has changed in the area over that longish gap. The campsites have improved, with much better places to put ones food, and no garbage. The bear-proof food caches are about 15 feet up on platforms that have metal-clad legs, to prevent sharp claws from getting a grip, and have ladders up to them that can be pulled away. I have never seen a bear climb a ladder, but you never know.

The first leg was a huge success. The wind, what there was of it, had no negative effect on the canoe. Kingsmere can be dangerous, turning from millpond to maelstrom in moments when strong winds blow, but we skimmed across and had the added bonus of landing three nice lake trout as we went. The Bagwa channel was gorgeous. The water lilies had just begun to open their buds and yellow balls dotted the water surface. There were mallards galore, lots of grebes, and small flotillas of pelicans sailing along. More pelicans planed down in tight formation to join them.

On that first trip we had sat on a beaver lodge and watched enthralled as a moose cow and her calf swam towards us. We only moved when it became obvious that she wanted to exit on the lodge that as our viewpoint and that there really was not enough room for both groups. She had turned aside and landed about thirty metres down from us, stopping briefly to take a disdainful look at us. This time there were no moose, but we did see three white-tailed deer, one of them a buck in velvet, walking along the lakeshore with a complete lack of concern.

There was one sour note, as a motorboat roared up the channel and into the lake, stopping for the night away from the official campsite. Bagwa, and even its entrance channel, are off limits to motors, and there can be no doubt that the people in the craft, tow men, were there to catch pickerel. If they had disregarded the motor rules, how many pickerel above their limit did they take out?

We forgot the intrusion as we fell asleep to the manic cries of loons and the cackling of grebes

The pickerel fishing was as good as we remembered and so we did not complete the round-trip, with its two portages, as we guessed that a paddle out back through the channel and across a slightly more windy Kingsmere. This proved to be a good choice as we caught the last trout on our permit and came home with a limit.