See the nice lady pat the moose? Tell me: What's wrong with this picture?
About two weeks ago the Vermont legislature played along with a last-minute, back-room deal that allows a private individual to fence native moose and deer in a game preserve in our Northeast Kingdom—this despite a longstanding doctrine that wild animals are held in communal public trust and can’t be converted to private property. This game preserve is run by Doug Nelson of Irasburg, and Nelson charges a hefty fee (from $2,000 to $7,500, according to local media) to people who want to hunt inside the fence; this violates another longstanding hunters' principle called “fair chase.” Nelson has been in conflict and negotiations over this preserve since it was established in the 1990s; he stocks it with imported elk.
This story heated up when hikers, out with their unleashed dogs, came across a month-old moose calf; apparently these dogs injured the calf, and the adult promptly vanished into the woods with an uninjured twin. These misguided animal lovers appropriated the injured calf and gave him to David Lawrence, a wildlife rehabilitator who has a history of coloring outside the lines when it comes to wildlife policy, which clearly states that wild animals are wild and belong only to themselves. They cannot be taken in, domesticated, or converted to pets or private property.
And where did the young moose eventually end up? On Doug Nelson’s elk farm, along with the other native species that he illegally trapped inside when he put up the unethical (and illegal) fence.
Just when you’d think an unattractive story couldn’t get much uglier, this tame moose, who has since learned to eat doughnuts and Snickers bars, became a media darling, and when Fish and Wildlife officials made it clear that there were policy and biosecurity issues with the interspecies contact and the continuing violation of public doctrine, Pete got a Facebook page and a silly and sentimental following of people who couldn't tell the difference between a wild creature and a domesticated one.
“Saving” Pete has now became a politicized rallying cry, mostly coming from the throats of people who fail to see that he was doomed from the get-go—first by dogs, then by his removal from the environment he was designed to live or die in, and then by being hand-fed junk food that isn't good for people, much less a creature designed to live on browse. And, as you can see from the photo, he has also lost any adaptive, necessary fear of humans.
As the chair of Fish and Wildlife put it, “This is just wrong in so many ways.”
Beyond the story of Pete qua Pete, a lot of so-called animals lovers can't seem to grasp a second issue, which is that there are real risks to putting cervids—deer, elk, and mule deer—into enclosures, since this concentrates the risk of a certain transmissible spongiform encephalopathy called chronic wasting disease, or CWD. These diseases take a lot of different forms—scrapie in sheep, mad cow disease in cattle, and Creutzfeldt-Jakob in humans.
CWD was first identified in 1967 as a disease in captive mule deer at the Colorado Division of Wildlife Foothills Wildlife Research Facility in Fort Collins, Colorado, and it has since spread, mostly through exports of captive elk, as far east as New York and north into Canada. There is no treatment, and the disease reaches critical levels quickly when populations of cervids are concentrated and enclosed—from 50 to 90 percent in research and unfair-chase game reserves in places like Nebraska and Colorado.
To my considerable delight, one of the behind-closed-doors legislators mentioned earlier, Susan Bartlett, has opted to run for governor, and this has given your correspondent the opportunity, for the first time in many years, to write grumpy letters to the editors of the statewide newspapers and also write large checks (for me) to the Fish and Wildlife Trust Fund. I’m also watchdogging a possible constitutional challenge to this action, and will probably separate myself from a bit more money to help pay for that as well.
This is all about politics, Pete is toast, and I’m very clear in my own mind about who’s to blame.