Glancing out our living-room window at dusk last night, we saw a cow elk and calf. Though she couldn’t see us, the cow elk started trotting swiftly uphill almost the moment we saw her. Something had spooked her.
The calf followed a few steps, then stopped and looked around as if confused. Its mother did not pause. Soon, she disappeared into the pine forest. The calf wandered a bit, seemingly without purpose or direction. It was not following its mother; in fact, it was walking the opposite way, toward the fenceline rather than the forest.
Concerned, we started to whisper about the calf and what it might be doing. It seemed uncertain, vulnerable without its mother’s protection. Would the cow elk come back? Or was she so spooked that finding safety was the only thing on her mind, calf or no calf?
I began to think about going outside to shoo the calf uphill in its mother’s direction. It seemed like some plan was needed, in case the cow elk didn’t return soon. I was mulling over this idea when, at last, back she came. As soon as the calf noticed her, it trotted to her side. Last we saw, the two were heading uphill together.
This mini-drama of separation between the cow elk and its calf evoked strong and similar feelings in both of us. Motivated by genuine concern, we were contemplating various actions we might take to reunite the elk family.
Now, I’m 1) a rational adult, 2) an employee of the state’s wildlife agency, and 3) a person who thinks and writes about wildlife for a living. I know cow elk have successfully raised their calves without human assistance for a long while. And I still had to tell myself that, forcefully, to keep myself from going outside.
That’s how strongly even a rational adult who knows better can feel about trying to help wildlife.
Sadly, in my work I’ve seen hundreds of examples of well-intentioned human action leading to harmful consequences to animals. To me, it feels like one of the essential tragedies of the relationship between humans and wildlife. Genuinely positive intentions that spring from a deep desire to help can go drastically astray. And still—despite everything I know and have been told and believe in my mind—in my heart, I was willing to try.
Good thing that mother elk came back when she did!