When I glanced out the window, a moose stood next to the picnic table. This isn't an unusual occurrence: the picnic table is in the middle of an old roadbed that originates in the meadow to the west. We've blocked the road with boulders to prevent vehicles from using it, but the path is still open to foot -- and hoof -- travel.
I put down my writing and went to the window to watch the moose. It was a cow: she appeared to be full-grown, taller than the yearling I've been seeing on and off for the past month or so. Ever since I'd spotted her, the cow had been standing frozen next to the picnic table: head alert and ears twitching.
I got the camera -- I can never resist a photo op of a moose -- and, since she still hadn't moved after I'd snapped some quick shots, I got the binoculars. The moose was about thirty yards from my second-story window, so with magnification I could observe her movements -- or lack thereof -- in precise detail.
One fact became apparent the instant I focused the binoculars: the cow was emaciated. Her ribs washboarded beneath her dark brown sides, and I could even distinguish the upward curve of her pelvic bones. A moose's face is dominated by a very pronounced Roman nose: on a normal moose cow, this large proboscis is proportional to the rest of the body. But on the cow in our roadway, the nose appeared grotesquely oversized compared to her scrawny body.
The moose's emaciated state was puzzling. We had a hard winter: the first blizzard came early and heavy late spring snows resulted in the meadow greening up more than two weeks later than normal. But the grass and forbs have been up for over a month now, and abundant rainfall has produced thick, lush growth. Moose cows have been dropping calves the past week or so, and a couple of years ago a cow moose in our meadow gave birth to twins. A twin birth -- and nursing two hungry mouths -- might have brought this cow to her emaciated state. But where were her calves?
I continued to study the moose, who obligingly stood stock-still the entire time. I noticed another odd thing about her: the fur on her left front leg was strangely colored, almost white. Moose are as uniformly dark as they can be without being black: their rich chocolate brown color is unmistakable. Unlike deer who sometimes exhibit partial or full albinism, I have never seen any variation in the sold darkness of a moose.
As I watched the moose from my window, it suddenly dawned on me why she had been immobile for so long: the moose was watching me. At least, her eyes appeared to be focused on the upstairs window where I stood, but I didn't understand how that moose could possibly have noticed me: moose have notoriously poor eyesight. However, I couldn't come up with any other explanation for her prolonged wariness so I stepped a few paces back from the window into the afternoon shadows of the cabin's interior, then slowly sank to the floor. After a long minute, still cautious, the moose resumed the journey that my activity had interrupted.
I almost cried out at her first step. When the moose put her weight onto her left front leg, the leg buckled beneath her, bowing out to form an exaggerated C shape. The bowing was so extreme that the moose's shoulder dropped at least half a foot below the level of the other as she stepped. Watching just one step of her twisted hobble made my bones -- and my heart -- ache.
The moose had apparently broken her thigh bone, the bone that bears so much of a body’s weight during the normal motion of walking. The fracture hadn’t been enough to snap the bone apart: the skin was still intact and the moose could walk on the leg, although slowly and to all appearances painfully. I am sure that she could not run. But she was surviving. The cow moose was emaciated and broken but she lived. I wondered how long the leg had been broken – long enough for her to become emaciated. Long enough for her to hobble into our meadow.
A full-grown moose is a huge animal. Only the heartiest of predators -- a pack of wolves or a grizzly -- will ever challenge a moose, even one that is injured like this cow. At this time of year, those big predators are all in the high country where newborn elk calves and deer fawns provide easy and abundant prey. The predators that remain in our meadow consist of coyotes, a few black bears (mostly yearlings because hunting pressure has been strong recently), and some mountain lions. Nothing to challenge a moose, even if she can barely walk.
I bit my lip as the moose limped toward our cabin, grateful that my dogs were sleeping after their hike up the Peak. I could see pain in every step the cow moose took. But I refused to look away from her halting progress, and as I watched I saw other things: strength, resolve, and adaptation.
She hobbled on, past our cabin, toward our solar panel and the waterhole beyond. If she stays in our meadow, there’s a chance that she might survive this summer. I will watch the waterhole in August in hopes of seeing that broken cow moose again, with a layer of fat covering those washboard ribs, her neck thickened, her body in proportion to that Roman nose, and her limping gait a badge of courage.
Causes Louise Young Supports
articulation of indigenous rights (organization: Cultural Survival)
sustainable, renewable, and independent energy sources