The moose babysitter
Rick Sinnott, an Alaska wildlife official, has made a career of catching bears, corralling geese, and making sure ravens don't eat Pringles.
Anchorage, Alaska — On one side of a pair of wire fences, a mother moose is grunting, pushing, and stomping on the small patch of grass where she's paced all night. On the other side, biologists Rick Sinnott and Jessy Coltrane dangle a hook and strap, as clouds of mosquitoes swarm their heads. Wedged in between is a wobbly moose calf.
While residents of the adjacent midtown condominiums look on, Mr. Sinnott and Ms. Coltrane pry open a space and free the calf, then watch its mother dash around the barrier to reunite with it. The animals walk to a neighboring driveway and munch on foliage, nuzzling and keeping close. As moose rescues go, this was a smooth one, says Sinnott, who calls Anchorage "a moose maze with fences."
"She was the most remarkably calm cow I've ever seen," he says. "Usually they'd be thumping on our heads."
It's just another morning in the life of Sinnott, a state Department of Fish and Game biologist who may have one of the more unusual jobs in America. He's part moose therapist, part bear chaperone, part goose sergeant, part ambulance driver for hawks, and – with several poetry awards to his name – he's part James Herriot with a hook and net. In the midst of his moose-calf rescue, an Anchorage woman calls to thank him for shooting a bear. After 36 years of refereeing conflicts between man and beast here in Alaska's largest city, Sinnott may be America's dean of urban wildlife.
"Anytime there's an animal issue, I expect Rick to be there," says Mayor Mark Begich. Indeed, in a local night club's skit about wild urban animals, a parody of "Ghostbusters" went, "Who you gonna call? Rick Sinnott!"
Lean, wiry, and quick with a quip – his office door plastered with wildlife cartoons – Sinnott is a local celebrity. The decades seem to have aged him little, except for some gray streaks in his hair and mustache, and a pouch of stories to rival any bear's salmon cache.
In Anchorage, a city of nearly 300,000 surrounded by mountains, forests, and the sea, and which for decades was represented by a dancing moose belting out "Wild About Anchorage," plenty of animals exist to keep him company.
Anchorage is believed to host about 250 to 300 black bears and, in normal years, 55 to 65 brown ones. It is the only large city, Sinnott says, roamed by grizzlies. The city is typically home to between 200 and 300 moose in summer and possibly 1,000 in winter, when they troop down from the mountains for better living conditions, he says.
Foxes, wolves, and coyotes lope the greenbelts. Porcupines waddle in the woods. Bald eagles perch on branches in subdivisions; goshawks attack skiers and runners; and armies of migrating geese invade lawns and parks. In fall and early winter, when light is low, vehicle-moose collisions are common.
But summer, when moose calves are finding their footing under the watch of wary mothers, bears come out of hibernation, and humans join them, is Sinnott's peak season. He's a near-daily fixture on newscasts and in local papers, discussing clashes or rescues and preaching the biologists' gospel of keeping bears and garbage separate. His cellphone might ring 10 times a night. "My wife's a saint," he says. His ring tone? The call of the whippoorwill, a reminder of his Midwestern roots.
A series of recent calls to Sinnott resulted in:
• A fruitless search, in pouring rain, for a black bear with an injured foot seen limping around a campground on the fringes of town.
• A long search in Kincaid Park for a black bear stalking joggers and bicyclists. Sinnott and Coltrane spent much of an afternoon toting guns along the sun-baked trails before emerging sweaty and frustrated. "This is the story of our lives. Ninety-nine percent of the time, there's nothing left when we get there," Sinnott said then. Later that day, when Sinnott returned, the bear approached his truck; the biologist shot it.
• An offering of bratwurst in a trap downtown after old dog food failed to entice a young brown bear. The bear never stopped for sausage, but wandered into a neighborhood where a police officer shot it. Sinnott and Coltrane, the young biologist likely to assume Sinnott's mantle after he retires, had hoped to relocate the bear, which they considered a good candidate for survival in the wild – it had merely followed the creek into town. An autopsy revealed that it had not yet gotten into mischief, and had been sticking to fish and grass, avoiding "garbage bear" status.
• The rescue of an injured red-tailed hawk at the same time Sinnott was removing the unused bear trap. While he and Coltrane rescued the trapped moose calf at the condo complex, the hawk rested in the bed of Sinnott's truck, awaiting transport to a bird-rehabilitation center.
Each year, Sinnott has to kill animals that have grown aggressive toward humans or too fond of garbage, dog food, or birdseed in yards – a risk that inspires Sinnott's passion about garbage management. That ardor irks some long-time Alaskans who hate being told what to do with their trash. And it has sparked some well-publicized clashes with government officials.
In 2005, after Sinnott used particularly salty terms to tell an Anchorage Daily News reporter that he'd like to kick the posterior of the person who left a pile of rotting fish in the city's wooded Hillside neighborhood, he was reprimanded by the commissioner of Fish and Game, briefly taken off bear duty, and slapped with a temporary media gag order.
Like-minded citizens rose to his defense. "If the state ever goes bankrupt, the last employee to be let go should be Rick Sinnott," wrote Anchorage attorney Jeff Lowenfels in a letter to the editor. That clash came during years of fractiousness, with Sinnott arguing that the city's attitude about trash was too lax, while the city maintained that wildlife management couldn't be its sole priority.
Relations have eased under Mr. Begich's leadership. The mayor and the biologist have come to an understanding: In the parts of town most likely to get four-legged tourists, a long-ignored ordinance barring residents from leaving trash out overnight has been dusted off, and garbage collection has been rescheduled to accommodate late risers. There are also plans to increase recycling and so reduce garbage piled in plastic bags (an easy mark for the ravens and eagles) or in bins that bears pry open.
Sinnott, for his part, has made peace with the idea that police are too busy with human miscreants to spend much time corralling wildlife. He should know. Despite moose kicks and bear charges, Sinnott's most serious injury occurred last fall, not from an animal, but when he was the victim of a drive-by shooting on his birthday. On an Anchorage thoroughfare, he found himself caught between vehicles of apparent rival gang members, and three shots pierced his car, one hitting him in the leg. Such malefaction puts the animals' forays in perspective.
Garbage disputes notwithstanding, Sinnott sees Anchorage as a model of human-wildlife coexistence. Elsewhere, he says, efforts tend toward separation of habitats – to everyone's detriment: "The world can't work that way.... You've got to preserve the biological diversity."
Sinnott also preserves his literary side. He is a frequent winner of haiku contests held by the weekly alternative newspaper, the Anchorage Press. This year, one of his winning entries was a poem for bookish moose as well as humans:
Spring calving: time to
Be a good mother and watch
Your kids closely