by Lesley Scott
Working with wildlife is exciting, but dangerous. It isn't owning a dog, cat or goldfish.
| Charged By A Murderous Elk
At the "Charles Towne Landing Animal Forest," where I worked, the South Carolina air was thick, humid, but filled with the lovely scent of Bayberry trees. These wild gardenias, sweet and relaxing, are now rare. But the hungry deer flies are here to stay. At that time, I never would have guessed I would be in danger of losing my life. I swatted the annoying flies that made it into my jumpsuit as I was preparing to do some heavy duty feeding. I cranked up the old green tractor, belching out smoke, I inhaled, smelling of diesel fuel. Off to the large Elk Habitat I puttered on the old tractor, feeling confident, my usual state of mind.
I chugged into Elk Habitat with two fifty pound bags of grain, a daily mission. I tried to keep an eye on the two elk in the habitat. The breeding season, or being in "rut," in this case, makes some animals act bizarre, and even deadly. Already, the rutting odor of sweat, unrine and the glands around the horns reached my nostrils. Being on the tractor, I wasn't too worried at the time. I was generally fearless, but caution was in order with these large and often unpredictable animals.
This young and healthy bull could cause serious damage with those strong, pointed antlers, or, at worst, could disembowel or kill a trespasser, as I was at the time. An elk is an enormous deer-like creature, stately and noble, the color of rust. With his long and strong legs, this young bull kept stomping his razor sharp feet on the ground, his ears at an odd angle, his eyes glazed crimson. This made me feel a bit uncomfortable. They usually ignored me at feeding time and always waited until I departed to eat their grain. "Always" doesn't exist in the real world.
When I heard that, “Nit, nit, nit,” sound, I knew his tongue stuck out of his mouth, performing other rutting rituals, such as herding or mounting his cow and urinating everywhere, even on himself. He was also rubbing the scent glands on his legs. This was a sign that he was behaving in a threatening manner. I worried, but just thought he was demonstrating his position as "top elk." His odor was sharp, pungent and overwhelming. I gave the bull elk a long glance making sure both he and his mate stayed a safe distance from me and the tractor. He briefly stopped his aggressive behavior. For some reason, I felt uneasy. I poured the sacks of feed in the hollow log, which makes the habitat look natural for the many tourists the Animal Forest attracts. I climbed back on the tractor, and the wheels started spinning.
The wheels of the old tractor started spinning on the log and I couldn’t pull or push it out because of my petite size. I weighed ninety seven pounds. Something felt disturbing. I glanced up and noticed the bull appeared a bit closer. The useless wheels made some noise, which attracted his attention. He spied me and my blood ran cold. I didn’t think he had plans to help with the tractor. My heart started beating in my chest so hard, I thought I'd pass out. I composed myself and said to the elk, "Hi, Buddy, Don't you have to be somewhere else?"
Looking into my face, the bull stomped his feet and made that "nit, nit," sound, which meant agression, and had plans to scare me away or worse. Putting on a brave front, I glanced at the seemingly far away gate. He seemed to reguard me as a rival bull elk. If I made the wrong move, he could decide he would put me out of commission. That could mean impalement, disemboweling, skewered, stomped, and God knows what else. I had to keep my wits about me if I planned to escape this large and dangerous animal.
The gate still seemed far away. I figured I had a chance to escape uninjured. As I ran, ducked, rolled and dodged, I thought I felt his hot breath close behind me. His sharp smell, like a buck goat, grew stronger. He seemed close,"Don't let me die like this,” I pleaded. God gave me the strength I needed to move, roll and run faster than I ever have in my life. I am sure I avoided injury by my actions. I still needed to open the gate.
In a nanosecond, my mind rapidly went over my options. I then spied the pipe. We kept pipes in strategic locations for safety because a lot of our large animals and predators, such as the bison and wolves, could be dangerous. For a few seconds, our eyes met, and I suddenly became angry. The large bull elk stopped and genuinely looked surprised, but only briefly.
“Now you're gonna get it!” I yelled. I had the heavy pipe choked down about a third of the way up from the bottom. Already in a charging position, his head down, and antlers aimed at my chest, I lunged sideways toward safety. He missed his chance that time. I called him some choice words as I smacked him right between his rutty blood red eyes. He backed up, pawing the ground, throwing clods of earth on his wide back. Can he be stopped long enough for me to leave safely? At least than one healthy blow to the head gave me some time to unlatch the gate.
Before I opened the gate, he started to approach me again and grew closer. I hit him so hard, blood dripped down his fly covered face and onto the ground, causing him not to see clearly. “Gotta go, you big old bully!” I yelled as I dropped the pipe, opened the gate, ran through, and clipped the padlock behind me. The big elk just shook off the dirt and walked away as if to say, "Oh well. I sure did let that one knows who's boss around here." In his world, in the wild, he behaved as any bull elk would to protect his family. In his mind, he was the victor, not me.
Still angry for being so foolish, yet relieved and shaky, I plopped down on the soggy grass outside the paddock until my heart slowed down. The shade of the great Live Oak trees felt cool. I didn’t feel too brave for saving myself, but proud of myself, all the same. I felt okay. I also felt guilty for not paying more attention to my surroundings. In the habit of feeding them alone, I had grown too comfortable and the tractor made it faster and easier to drive to the feeding area, I always thought I'd be safe on wheels.
I made a mistake. Or should I say, “Again.” Working with native wildlife is not like training horses or rustling cows. Wild animals have something deep inside that can come out at any time. I’ve seen Billy, the baby buffalo, running like the wind in his small paddock, swapping ends without missing a beat. Everyone should be extra careful around wild animals or "tame" wild animals. These animals, unpredictabl and usually dangerous, can seriously hurt or kill someone. Some of us only have one chance. Other people aren't so lucky.
Two stronger employees moved the tractor when the elk were busy mating. I asked for someone to please move the feeding log closer to the gate. I thought it would be safer to leave the tractor outside of the gate and slip in the habitat. I filed this experience away, adding to my growing list of endles lessons learned. I always should be on my guard and be prepared for surprises with wild animals. Don't you love 'em?
Because of the excitement and danger in this story, I love to read it, edit it, and enjoy being alive with no huge scars from that encounter.