The delicate art of shooing a moose

Now I more fully understand the angst of northern homeowners whose ornamental trees and flower gardens have become meals for moose, for I have caught one raiding my prized strawberry patch.

The first hint that something was amiss appeared earlier in the week when I found a couple of the plants uprooted, ripening berries still attached. I wondered what - or who - might have pulled up the plants. A rambunctious dog? A marauding teen? A rogue rabbit?

Because the plants had been pulled but not eaten, and the patch as a whole was largely undisturbed, it didn't even cross my mind that a passing ungulate might be the culprit. Besides, in the 11 summers my wife and I have lived on Anchorage's Hillside, no moose has ever shown a taste for our patch of feral strawberries. In fact the only animal I've ever seen foraging in our small, unkempt berry garden was a robin, which simply took bites from several ripened fruits. Berry-burrowing bugs and occasional slugs have been bigger problems than bird or furry beast.

For several years our "patch" was hardly big enough to attract much attention from anything bigger than a beetle (or the occasional bumblebee, when the flowers were blooming). But in the past few years we've let the berries run wild, and the plants have greatly expanded their territory. Now our strawberry fields have annually produced 1 to 2 gallons of small, pinkish fruits that are juicy and lip-smackingly sweet. Still, they never lured many grazers - until this midsummer morning.

Walking down the hall to check on my mother, who lives with us, I happened to glance out the window. Just outside, partially obscured by blinds, was a large, brown, hairy form.

"What the heck is a moose doing on our front porch?" I wondered to myself.

To my surprise and dismay, a cow moose was standing with one foot in the berry patch, chomping away. Just beyond her, a cinnamon-colored calf lay sprawled among the strawberry plants, seemingly at peace with the world even as my own peaceful morning was being shattered.

"Oh, no!" I moaned. What was I going to do? Hoping to scare the moose off without having to confront them, I banged on the front door. The cow lifted her head and looked toward the house, but that was all. Clearly, more drastic measures were needed. I began to unlock the door, but had enough presence of mind to remember the house alarm was triggered. I didn't want to set it off and perhaps panic the massive beast, so I punched the keyboard combination. Then, very carefully, I opened the door several inches, poked my head outside, and talked to the moose in a calm but stern voice.

"Hey, what do you think you're doing, eating my strawberries? Get out of there. Go on. Get out."

Her huge, oblong head was no more than five feet from my face. The cow moose looked at me with an expression that seemed a mix of curiosity and bewilderment. She appeared neither flustered nor agitated. On the one hand, this was good news. I didn't want a riled-up moose on my doorstep. On the other hand, she obviously wasn't ready to give up her newfound snack.

Emboldened by the cow's easygoing manner, I opened the door wider and took a small step forward. Then, once more, I softly urged them to leave my precious strawberry patch. Both mom and calf watched intently. I, too, felt calm; but I was ready to bolt inside at the slightest sign of aggression.

The calf stood. And the cow, bless her, took a tentative step backward, as if not quite sure how to respond. It was then that I noticed a second calf, lying 20 feet away on the lawn. Neither of the twins seemed anxious.

Like their mom, they seemed more curious than alarmed by the unfolding encounter.

Ever so slowly, the cow backed out of the berry patch. Followed by calf No. 1, she began to cross the front deck, head still turned toward me. Every now and then she rolled her tongue across her lips. I got a strong sense that the cow was savoring those strawberry plants, with their dark green leaves and ripening berries. She didn't want to leave such a tasty meal, when so much remained on the dark earthy plate of my garden.

"G'wan, g'wan," I continued to urge the moose family. "I don't want you eating my strawberries, so leave them alone, OK?" Strangely enough, I didn't feel foolish talking to the moose this way. The mom and her calves seemed responsive to my pleas. Very slowly, almost reluctantly, they continued to retreat across the yard. The cow was huge; her legs probably reached my chest and she must have weighed close to 1,000 pounds. The gangly calves were as tall as my shoulders.

Within a few minutes, they reached the far end of my front lawn. There the cow began gulping down alder and birch leaves. The calves, too, picked at the bushes. But from time to time, one or more would look back at me.

By now I was out on the deck, arms crossed and gaze steady in their direction. Part of me wanted to wake Mom and tell her about this amazing spectacle. But I didn't want to abandon my post.

So I stayed and watched while the moose ate wild greens. At a casual browsing pace, they gradually moved downhill from the front yard to the back, still occasionally glancing in my direction. From the lawn they slipped into the thick forest that borders the back yard, still eating as they moved. Nearly half an hour had passed.

I walked over to the patch to inspect the damage. Several plants had been cleanly clipped; a few had been pulled from the ground, and others trampled. But overall, the losses were light.

Anticipating the moose family's return, I've been wondering how to protect my strawberries until I've harvested enough for at least one scrumptious pie. Yet any frustration over the raid and concern about possible future ones has been softened by the delight of this encounter. Moose and berries: I never would have guessed. Given our shared taste for feral strawberries, how can I begrudge the cow her nibbling of the plants?

Only time will tell if I'll remain so generous with the fruits of my gardening labors, though really I don't have to work so hard to tend this crop. For now, I can only chuckle at the memory of the cow moose licking her lips and reluctantly leaving the berry patch behind, like a kid retreating from an unhappy neighbor's apple orchard, the taste still sweet in her mouth.

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