Thursday, February 9, 2006
He's been bumped a few times and wears a flak jacket during the rutting season, but Tom Cox never has been attacked or otherwise feared for his safety when working with the elk on Routt County's M&M Ranch.
For that matter, Cox, manager of the M&M domestic elk ranch north of Steamboat Springs and president of the Colorado Elk Growers and Breeders Association, never has heard of a deadly encounter between a domestic elk and a person in Colorado.
That is until Thursday, when a bull elk at a ranch east of Craig killed John Renner. Renner was inside the elk's pen feeding it hay when the elk attacked him.
"It's a rare occurrence what happened today," Cox said Thursday. "Probably more people have been injured and killed by pit bulls in the past year than ever have been killed by (domestic) elk."
The M&M Ranch is home to 95 elk and is one of 96 licensed elk ranches in the state, Cox said. Colorado's elk ranches total about 7,000 head. M&M Ranch is the only domestic elk operation remaining in Routt County.
Cox has worked with domestic elk for the past nine years, and he describes them as relatively docile animals. Domestic elk typically are no more dangerous than cattle, Cox said.
Cox enters the ranch's fenced perimeter daily to feed his elk. He takes extra precautions during fall, when bull elk are rutting. During rut, a three-month mating season characterized by particularly aggressive behavior among males, Cox wears a flak jacket whenever he is around the animals. He also dons the jacket when he senses unusual aggression from the elk, such as during the spring calving season.
"Certain times of year, you need to be particularly careful," Cox said. "The bulls don't like anyone during rut."
Mike Crackel, who owns Crackel's White Elk Ranch west of Craig, said he is extra careful around the 55 elk on his ranch from the time when the velvet on the bulls' antlers rubs off in the fall until the antlers fall off in the spring.
Elk are protective of their antlers when there is velvet on them, Crackel said. But after the velvet comes off, elk will rub the antlers on just about anything, including humans, he said.
The bulls in Crackel's pens have killed other elk before, Crackel said, and they have been aggressive toward him.
One bull chased Crackel along a fence, he said.
"He backed off. But they don't always," Crackel said.
The M&M Ranch frequently attracts visitors who want to gaze upon the world champion antlers of some of the elk there. Cox said some of his bulls calmly eat from the hands of such visitors.
But during rut, Cox keeps visitors away from the ranch fences, which bulls have been known to charge.
Crackel said elk that are used to humans can be more dangerous than elk that are scared of humans.
Sometimes, domesticated elk want to play with people, which can be dangerous because the animals are so powerful, Crackel said.
Nationally, deaths caused by domestic elk are rare. A 51-year-old Vermont man was killed in September 2002 when his 700-pound bull elk gored him during fall rut.
Elk and deer attacks in the wild also are rare.
A deer killed a California man in September while the man worked in his garden.
The Colorado Division of Wildlife encourages people to stay away from wild animals, spokesman Randy Hampton said.
People think animals are cute and cuddly, Hampton said, but any wild animal can be dangerous.
"Wild animals are wild animals," Hampton said. "It is not in anyone's best interest to get too darn close to them."