Out of Bounds

Fall Elk Mean Business

It’s a minor miracle so few body-armorless, selfie-seeking dumb tourons wind up in the hospital every fall

By Rob Breeding

Perhaps you’ve seen the video of that elk, tangled in a tree swing, doing its darnedest to impale the sheriff’s deputies trying to free it.

Watching this made me wonder how there aren’t more casualties in Yellowstone every fall when so many tourons insist on attempting stupid human tricks with rutting elk. 

The deputies in Pierce County, Washington, which includes Tacoma and Mount Rainer National Park, were doing their best to untangle the young elk. I suspect the raghorn was feeling his oats, but after getting whooped by a few grown-up bulls, figured the tree swing offered better odds.

Big mistake.

Bull elk are inclined to test rivals, real and imagined, this time of year. I once wrote a story about a bull elk that had become entangled in a fire hose left on the forest. The bowhunter spun a yarn I reported as fact, later realizing he likely made much of it up. 

As Bob Dylan sang “I was so much older then/I’m younger than that now.”

Search for images of elk tangled in things and you’ll learn this is routine stuff. Once elk shed their velvet it seems every clothesline, role of barbed wire or hammock threatens their masculinity. You’ll also find the usual photo gallery of bull elk who challenged another, their antlers becoming permanently tangled, then the pair dying side-by-side from the exhaustion of trying to free themselves.

And there’s at least one image of a bull walking about with the decaying head of a rival still hanging from its antlers. I suppose this is as good a reason as any why elk evolved to drop and regrow their antlers each year.

Still, I wonder how long it took for the corpse of that losing elk to decay to the point its head broke off at the neck.

Back to those sheriff’s deputies doing their sometimes thankless but often interesting work. They eventually freed the elk, cutting the rope with what appears to be a saw blade attached to a rake handle, though that description makes it sound easier than it was.

 The frantic elk repeatedly lunges at its rescuers, who do their best to stay out of tree-swing range. Fortunately for them, and unfortunately for the exhausted elk, as it lunges the elk reaches the end of its parabolic tether and its momentum lifts it off the ground, swinging it back each time to the center point of its arc.

Eventually, the elk nails one of them squarely in the chest. Fortunately for the nearly impaled deputy, he’s wearing body armor and shakes it off.

Ultimately, the tree part of tree swing comes in handy. The trunk provides the deputies a shield to stand behind while they saw. After some effort, the rope finally breaks and the elk scampers back into the woods.

These days it’s not unusual for folks to post videos of intelligent sea creatures, often whales, appearing to seek out human help to free them from old fishing nets or other debris they’ve become entangled with. 

The key word here is intelligent. I’ve long speculated whales are far smarter than we give them credit for. If we ever break down the language barrier I think we’ll learn things from whales that will make us deservedly ashamed of the way we’ve relentlessly slaughtered them.

On the other hand, “intelligent” and “randy bull elk” are two things you’ll rarely find in the same sentence. 

The tree-swing elk reminds me of another intersection between wildlife and humans in a place like Mammoth Hot Springs. Those elk may not seem it when they lounge about, but they’re amped up on hormones. It’s a minor miracle so few body-armorless, selfie-seeking dumb tourons wind up in the hospital every fall.

Sometimes I almost find myself rooting that those dopes will end their wildlife encounters with stretcher rides rather than just a scare.


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