Of moose and man: State frowns on moose's residence on Irasburg farm

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IRASBURG -- For the last year, David Lawrence has cared for a young moose named Pete that he nursed back to health after it was attacked by dogs and separated from its mother.

Now, Pete eats leaves out of Lawrence's hands and allows the 73-year-old farmer with the chest-length white beard to scratch his neck like a horse or an oversized dog. Sometimes Pete chases after Lawrence in his pickup truck as he leaves the fenced-in elk hunting preserve where the moose now lives in Irasburg, near the Canadian border.

"I feel that he and I have a bond that I think is unique and I think he's a bit confused as to just who he is," Lawrence said of the 600-pound animal. "I'm not sure he thinks he's a moose. I think he thinks I'm his father or something, maybe his mother."

But the Vermont Department of Fish and Wildlife says Pete and other native deer and moose living in the compound shouldn't be mixing with the farm-raised elk. Officials say animal feed could introduce chronic wasting disease, a brain ailment that strikes deer-like animals, into Vermont.

It could become necessary to destroy Pete and the others. In any event, they can't be released into the wild, officials said.

The state's top game warden, Col. David LeCours, said Friday the department would be open to finding a way to save the animals, including Pete, but the bigger issue is the health of Vermont's entire populations of deer and moose.

"The concern we would have as a department on a much broader scale ... is that this disease gets spread into the wild population," LeCours said. "We as a department have to err on the side of caution."

Lawrence would like to let Pete live out his days within the 700-acre enclosed elk hunting preserve because he's too tame to release into the forests of Vermont, but he'd settle for sending him to an appropriate game preserve.

Lawrence knew it was illegal for him to tame Pete, but he took over the animal's care more than a year ago after hearing about the dog attack. Another person Lawrence won't name started bottle feeding the then-small moose and brought it to Irasburg; Lawrence continued the feedings, three times a day.

"We're human beings and we're farmers and we can't stand to see an animal die if we can save it," Lawrence said.

Compound owner Doug Nelson started keeping elk in 1992 as a way to supplement his income as a dairy farmer. In 2000, he started offering what are now 50 to 60 hunts a year in what he calls the "hunt park."

He's happy to have Pete living there.

"It's human nature to kind of nurse and protect the young and helpless," Nelson said Friday. "I am proud of David and what he did. I would encourage him and assist him to do it again."

Now Pete and a handful of wild moose and scores of deer are living among more than 100 non-native elk in the compound.

It's unclear how the other moose and deer got into the compound, but LeCours said that technically it was illegal to fence them in. Earlier this year, the Vermont Fish and Wildlife Board implemented new rules that prohibit animals like elk living in enclosures from mixing with native animals.

Chronic wasting disease is a transmissible neurological disease of deer and elk that is similar to mad cow disease. Although it hasn't been found at Nelson's elk farm, "we can't necessarily trust the feed sources," LeCours said.

"These animals could be exposed now, we don't know it and there's no way to test for it," he said.

LeCours said the department hadn't made any final decisions about what to do with the deer and moose, but it is eager to find a solution.

"If there was a place that would be willing and able to take them and they wanted to do it, I don't know why we would oppose that," LeCours said. "What we suspect may occur is the other states may have the same concerns we do and no one will let the animals in."


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