A Moose-ful Moment After School / by Louisa Ulrich-Verderber

I live in the farthest reaches of Northern Vermont, 5 miles from the Canadian border, in the middle of a very densely wooded, dairy and maple sugar producing county. Moose are something we can expect to unexpectedly stumble upon.  The photo on the right is of a female moose that was right beside the road on our way home from school last week.

The photo on the left is me at 4 years old, standing with an orphaned moose that our family was raising for the Vermont Fish and Wildlife Department.

My parents are wild. They have so many interests and expertise!.. They have done so many cool, crazy things! Growing up, we thought everyone’s parents mixed gallons of powdered milk daily to feed six hungry fawns. And didn’t everyone’s parents build their own post and beam barns, and know how to drive bulldozers to build their own ponds?  Didn’t everyone have baby moose on the deck in the morning at breakfast.

For 15 years, my parents were the only people in Vermont licensed to raise and release orphaned large animals. Growing up, we always had a big enclosure of at least a half dozen orphaned fawns that mom and dad were slowly weaning throughout the summer, getting them ready to release in the fall. We raised all sorts of orphaned or injured foxes, skunks, porcupines, giant black-backed seagulls, raccoons, squirrels, and most interestingly, moose. 

Large parts of Vermont are classic moose habitat: swampy wetlands interspersed with boreal forest species (pines, spruce and larch trees),  so calves are found orphaned from time to time beside their mothers who have been hit by a car. My mother’s friendship with several game wardens created an effort to save these babies, when previously they would have been euthanized. My mother has an animal “green thumb,” so as her success with various animals became well-known, the size of her charges increased.  Over the years, my parents raised 4 moose calves until they could find them good homes in zoos or native wildlife parks.

Moose cannot be raise by humans and released like white tailed deer can. White tails retain a healthy fear of humans as long as the rehabber keeps contact to a minimum. My parents had quite an elaborate system for feeding, but not having contact with the fawns. And this is in line with the natural behavior of deer.  White tails do not spend every waking minute with their fawns.  So we did not have to worry about the baby’s sense of abandonment. Additionally, we had a 3-legged doe – named Tripod - that lived permanently with us, and she acted as a surrogate mother to the fawns that came and went.

When my parents started taking the baby moose for the Fish and Wildlife Department, my mother quickly tracked down some of the world’s authorities on moose and learned a lot that informed the methods they used to keep the babies thriving. The most important thing they found was that it was best to prepare the moose calves for a lifetime in captivity because once imprinted on people, they could never be released.

They developed a network of zoos they worked with to find homes for the orphans over the years.  Making the calves ready for captivity meant becoming their surrogate mothers and having them with us as much as logistically possible.  At our house, there was often a moose in the garden while we weeded, a moose along the path with us when we hiked our woods, and even a moose on our deck at breakfast.

But moose have an entirely different natural history. The calves stay by their mother’s side 24/7 for two years. It would have been inhumane to leave the baby moose that we raised all by themselves all day every day like we did with the fawns. Consequently, they imprint on their care-giver quite easily. For that reason, my parents developed a network of zoos and North American Wildlife parks that were eager to take the moose calves that came our way.  Our first baby moose – Clifford – wound up at the Milwaukie Zoo, and eventually became the longest lived moose in captivity – 12 years – due to the wonderful work on moose nutrition that this zoo invested in.

In the Algonquin Indian language, the word “moose” means “twig eater”. They do not graze on grass, but rather browse brush, leaves, bark, aquatic plants, sedges, rushes and twigs. They like to wade in water (hence their long legs) but will dive to depths of up to 15 feet to reach favorite plants.

The Milwaukie Zoo was the first to discover that moose need a seasonal change in their diet to live long healthy lives. Just as the fall and winter bring more bark and twig type material into their diet, the zoo realized that if they partnered with the local railroad that worked year-round to keep the tracks cleared, they would have a constant rotation of naturally changing vegetation.  Almost immediately after they made their new moose pellets out of the right seasonal material, moose went from living in captivity for 4 years to our Clifford living to the ripe old age of 13.

Back to our MOOSIFUL ride home from town today… All this back-story made sitting beside the road watching our roadside a bit of a familiar pleasure.


Me Age Three!