Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Murder by elk (moose)?


An unusual report has come out of Sweden and appeared on the BBC website (here) on 28th November and on a blog called JUSTICE", FROM THE CRAZY TO THE DEEPLY DISTURBING" (here). The BBC headline reads,
“Sweden woman's 'murder' committed by elk not husband”
I have been trying to find out more about it since the as the report has some intriguing holes in it. Of course the first thing to clear up is that the word elk means something different in Europe than it does in North America. It is a bit difficult to figure our why the elk of North America, known as Wapiti, ever became to be called en elk, which is what the moose is known as across the pond and right round the globe as far as the Bering Strait. Elch, Alg, and others are the names in languages other than English. Idle speculation on my part makes me wonder if one of the early settlers, maybe even someone on the Mayflower, was either short-sighted or had cataracts. If he or she saw a large brown deer-like beast it might have been dubbed an elk.

Anyhoo, that aside, the story is a sad one. A man named Ingemar Westlund says he was "dragged through a nightmare" after being arrested on suspicion of the murder of his wife. He found the body of his wife Agneta, aged 63 in September 2008 and was immediately arrested by police and held in custody for 10 days.

In the initial investigation, police did not take into account the possibility of a killer elk, assuming that the animal hairs on Mrs. Westlund’s coat were from her dog. It was only when the police realized that 68 year-old Mr. Westlund was not strong enough to have inflicted the damage to his wife that they went to forensics. Scientists at Umeå University sorted out the hair types and identifed the saliva. At that point it must have been assumed that she had been attacked when taking their dog for a walk in the forest. The charges were later dropped.

One of the weirder elements of this story appears as a quote on the BBC site
“Swedish Radio International says the animals can become aggressive after eating fermented fallen apples in gardens.”

There are more detail on the “Justice” blog where it states that:
“Drunken elks attacked an old people’s home four years ago, and had to be driven back by police and hunters… Typically weighing up to half a tonne, elk are best avoided when they are tipsy. They have entered department stores, got stuck in lifts, attacked skiers and barged into kitchens.”

If the “murderer” was a bull then there is a much stronger likelihood that apples had little to do with the event.

The deer scientist in me at once raises a red flag. The sad event occurred in September. September is the month when the rut starts in moose in the Northern Hemisphere and as the month goes along the rut gets more intense.

That intensity is driven by a huge spike in testosterone (T4) in the blood. I am not aware of any exact studies of T4 levels in moose, but in elk (the wapiti version) they are well known. As you can see from this graph, which I made almost 30 years ago during a research project of the rut in wapiti, T4 concentrations increase about 100 fold in the space of two weeks. The scale on the graph does not give a true picture as it had to be altered to fit on a page or screen.

Aggression is then the watch-word and humans are targets if they get too close to the sex-crazed creature. One of my colleagues, who will remain nameless, descried a particularly randy male student (who also flies incognito) as a life-support system for an erection. A rutting male deer really does fit that description.

I have talked to moose hunters who have been attacked. They were all terrified and were mighty thankful to have guns. Poor Mrs. Westlund would have had no chance.

Even if the moose was a female and Mrs. Westlund had got too close, she would have been completely outmatched. Moose cows, especially if defending a calf, are powerful and would attack a dog much as they do a wolf, using the front feet to strike and pound. Imagine 400 kg or more of enraged moose, bull or cow, up against a woman and a dog. No contest.

Another sad element. Mr. Westlund was shunned by his neighbours. “When I and my children bade farewell to Agneta at her funeral in front of 300 mourners, I was suspected of murdering her — can you imagine what that means?” he said. He is now seeking compensation.

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