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The Dangers of Getting Too Comfortable with Wildlife

A small group of bull elk have arrived in the Valley of Ken‐Caryl Ranch and have been seen hanging out
in just about every subdivision for the past couple of weeks. I believe that at least a couple of these
creatures are the same ones that were here last summer. They are beautiful animals to look at but I am
a bit nervous about how comfortable they are around people.

These are very large animals and no matter how tame they seem they are still very unpredictable and
should not be approached. The following from the Colorado Division of Wildlife is relevant to this recent
situation and sheds some light on the problems associated with wildlife habituation.

On October 27, 2000, a Teller County Sheriff’s officer, following the advice of the Colorado Division of
Wildlife (CDOW), euthanized a cow elk near the town of Woodland Park. The elk had reportedly been
stopping traffic on Highway 67 north of Woodland Park. It had been spray painted and had a bag on its
head.

The elk was a year‐and‐half old female weighing more than 300 pounds. At the time of its death, the elk
had what appeared to be pink spray paint on one side. In addition, an orange mesh vest and a cloth
Halloween costume were wrapped around its neck.

A hunter agreed to take the elk and utilize the meat. When the elk was field dressed, bailing twine, a
rubber glove, and a plastic grocery bag were found in its stomach.
The story of this elk started more than a year ago when it was “adopted” by a Woodland Park family as a
young calf. Some neighbors began complaining about a now grown 300‐pound elk trampling their
property, sleeping on their porches, and generally “causing a nuisance,” according to the reports. At one
point, the elk tried to break into one of the neighbor’s houses.

CDOW contacted the neighbors and advised them “to do some negative conditioning,” in an attempt to
deter the elk from frequenting their property. She suggested removing food sources, (e.g., bird food,
livestock feed, hay, etc.).

On October 9, a Woodland Park family called 911 after the elk attacked them as they were hiking on a
pedestrian trail near the residence of the family that had “adopted” the animal.

The DOW made the decision to destroy the elk because it had become a threat to public safety. A 300‐
pound elk can easily kill an adult, and is especially dangerous to a young child who might not know
enough to keep a safe distance from an unpredictable wild animal. While it is unfortunate the elk was
destroyed, the alternative might have been a seriously injured — or dead — person.

Why Wildlife Should Not Be Made Into Pets

Whenever a person tries to tame a wild animal, whether it is an elk, a bear, or a raccoon — the results
are always bad for the animal, and usually bad for the human, as well.

Wildlife professionals across the nation agree there is a big difference between wild animals that
“imprint” on people and wild animals that become “accustomed to living in close proximity to people.”
Animals that “imprint” on people are the most dangerous type of wildlife. The elk in Rocky Mountain
National Park, for example, are accustomed to people. Although they pose a potential danger, the elk
usually keep a safe distance from people and will flee if a person tries to get too close to them. On the
other hand, an elk that imprints on people is far more dangerous than even a bear or a mountain lion
because once an elk imprints on people, it does not know how to act like an elk.

There are numerous cases of people being killed by deer that they have raised. One of the most recent
cases was in October 31, 2000, in Minnesota. According to the report in the Minneapolis Star Tribune, a
Forest Lake man was killed when the family’s pet whitetail buck gored him to death. In Kansas on
September 16, 2000, a 75‐year old woman was killed by an eight‐year‐old buck that she had raised. Her
husband found the woman’s body when she failed to return from feeding the deer. The 200‐pound buck
had gored and trampled her. Each year Alaskan wildlife officers are forced to kill five‐to‐10 moose in and
around Anchorage. In nearly all of the cases wildlife biologists report there was a pattern of food
habituation. According to Bruce Barley of Alaskan Fish and Game, the moose begins to expect food from
every human and becomes aggressive when people don’t feed it. In Galesburg, Illinois, a man was killed
by a deer he raised as a pet. Wildlife biologists believe the deer’s behavior switched because of
hormonal changes related to the beginning of the breeding season.

The people who “domesticated” this elk near Woodland Park said they wanted the elk to return to the
wild. Although their intentions were good, they did not fully understand the unintended consequences
of their actions. Once the elk imprinted on them, the elk was put in a lose/lose situation. It became
impossible for the elk to ever return to the wild as a normal, healthy elk because it would be forever
dependent on humans.

Just because an elk might not act aggressively at one given moment, there is no guarantee how it may
act at any other given moment, as was the case when it chased the family on the hiking trail.
Relocating this elk would result in moving the problem somewhere else. There are virtually no places in
Colorado where this elk would not seek out humans.

It is illegal in Colorado to feed big game, and possess or transport wildlife; sick, orphaned, and injured
wildlife should be handled only by trained and licensed wildlife rehabilitators. Wildlife rehabilitation
permits are only given to people who have adequate training and facilities to care for sick, injured or
orphaned wildlife in a manner that minimizes human contact and maximizes the chances that wildlife
can be returned successfully to the wild. It is not legal to “adopt” wildlife as a personal possession or
pet.

Please, don’t domesticate our wildlife! They deserve to be wild and we, the public who owns all wildlife
in the state of Colorado, deserve to see them in a wild state.

by KCRMA Open Space Manager Sean Warren

Ken-Caryl Ranch