I’ve been thinking for a while now - ever since I learned the conclusion of this story – about how to write about it. Now I’m just going to write. On my first full day in Yellowstone this year (May 28), happily watching a grizzly sow bear and her large cub in the distance in Hayden Valley, I ran into a friend who had been in the park for a while. He said, “There’s an injured moose cow and her new calf over by Trout Lake [at a far end of the park from where we were standing], be sure to look for them when you’re over that way.”
A week later my itinerary finally took me past Trout Lake. There, across from the parking pullout for the trail to the lake, lying in the shade, were a resting cow moose and her tiny, intermittently napping calf. It was clear that no one among the onlookers knew exactly how she had been injured, or when, or even if it was before or after she bore the calf. Those who had seen her wounds said it seemed likely she had been attacked by any one of several possible predators in the area: wolves, a grizzly, possibly even a mountain lion. But from my vantage that day, they looked fine. Mom moose was scruffy, but her kind are in late spring as their winter coats are slowly replaced with sleekness. It wasn’t apparent that she had anything wrong with her. I was delighted that it looked like all might be well, and after taking a few photos from too far away, I continued with my itinerary for the day. I saw them again the next day. Still alive, still looking normal, still attracting a small fleet of photographers and well-wishers.
Then, on my last day in the park (June 5), very early in the morning, I came across two stopped cars, occupants looking to the opposite side of the road from where the mother and baby had been for several days. They had moved uphill and were standing in the beautiful morning light above me about 50 yards. I was thrilled to see them standing for the first time, moving around normally. The cow kept an eye on me as I set up my tripod. The active little calf sniffed and looked and listened and raised its nose to its mother’s face, turned around and explored the brush behind it, then nuzzled again. Then the cow extended her head, revealing deep gashes in her neck and jowl. Through my binoculars they appeared to be granulating, that is, healing from the inside. This was great news, as it meant the chance of infection from an encapsulated wound, unable to drain, was much lower. It crossed my mind that there would not yet be maggots to clean the wound, though, as frost was still a nightly occurrence. I watched a while, until the mother led her infant into the trees. I left them, and Yellowstone, thinking there was every chance the mother would heal and the calf would grow and mature and go on to make calves of its own in a couple of years.
On June 9, the cow’s body was found in the Lamar River. The calf died, doubtless of starvation, a day or two later.
A million thoughts have crossed my mind, competing for space with sadness. When I witness, or learn of, the death of an infant creature in Yellowstone (not just a regular, but a frequent, occurrence) I think of the of all of the wasted biological energy that went into bringing the new being to daylight. I hope at least the carcasses were left where they lay so they could go on to nurture babies of other species: coyotes, eagles, ravens, magpies, bears…
Another side of me thinks, over and over, of that moose infant slowly dying after its mother suddenly morphed from a nurturing, feeding, animated protector to a crumpled lump of dead flesh, bone, and fur.
1 day ago