…before wearing out his welcome.
Sometimes at night in the mountains, strange sounds startle you from sleep: coyotes baying at the moon, hoot owls, bear growls, horses sparring and the bugles, grunts and whistles of elk.
Stories circulate of herds of hundreds of wapiti – 700, 800, 900 – toppling fences as they cross a ranch. Every so often, a young elk will get snagged in barbwire, thrashing to exhaustion. That’s how I ended up with a newborn calf, abandoned at dawn by the herd moving back up the mountain. Rescued by a local rancher, he was turned over to a Game & Fish officer who asked if I’d raise the young elk until he was strong enough to be released back in the wilds. I became his surrogate mother, nursing him with bottles of calf milk. For the first few months he followed me everywhere, stumbling behind, nudging me for more milk, head butting if you weren’t watching. From day one he was built for trouble; you could see it in the wild look in his eyes. He’d get into everything: the garden, chicken coop, rabbit cage, duck pen, tool shed, groceries, laundry on the line.
One morning I stepped up to the porch where he used to sit on the sofa beside the dog. But they weren’t there. I heard a noise in the bedroom, walked in and found him lounging on the bed, staring up at me beside the dog who had showed him how to nudge open the back door.
Of course I started hollering at them both to get out. When he rose, he spotted himself in the mirror – scared the heck out of him, me too – as he then crashed around the house to get out, leaving hoof prints all over the place.
Daily he grew bigger, stronger, wilder and soon started to wander into town. Tourists would take photos of him hanging out at the Mini Mart, Valley Market, Post Office, places people are. He became kind of famous, a regular in the newspaper. And he loved the attention like most famous people.
One night, late, I got a call saying he was harassing folks at a local bar.
“There’s a big fella outside messing with him. You better get down here.”
As I drove up, it looked like a wrestling match; the big guy had him in a headlock.
“Stand back,” he told me. “This here’s a wild one.”
Apologizing, I told him he was mine, and started walking back to the truck where the elk would run alongside under my arm stuck out the window.
“That’s the most beautiful thing I ever saw,” the big guy said, tears in his eyes.
The elk spent about a year in the valley creating a stir and stories wherever he went. Then he ended up at a wildlife rehab center in Raton before moving to Vermejo Park.
The southern Rockies are still a place where the wild things are, perfect for a walk on the wild side, even if you don’t leave hoof prints. Welcome.
– Joe Haukebo, Publisher