by Clara Ritcey with Ellen Ferguson
Many years ago, when I was a girl and madly in love with a budding young wildlife biologist, the more seasoned wife of another member of that profession gave me a story to read, entitled “Never Marry A Biologist”.
As I dimly recall, the story recounted a number of the authoress’ misadventures that were a direct result of her husband’s profession.
I read the story, enjoyed it, and promptly forgot its message.
I did marry the biologist, but often over the years that story has haunted my life … like the year I became foster mother to a moose calf.
This was NOT my personal project. I managed to keep quite busy raising a brood of over-active children, and an additional baby to care for was not my idea of a worthwhile summer project.
However, Ralph’s special project in Wells Gray Provincial Park was an intensive study of moose and their ecology. It was suggested that he raise a moose calf.
Being a suspicious person who had spent too much time already looking after the children’s pets, I was not enthusiastic about the idea, despite the assurances that this was a project that The Men would be looking after.
And so, one very wet afternoon in early June 1963, Ralph and his assistant arrived home with a baby moose in a canvas tarp. She was terrified, tiny, weak, only a day or two old, and not a very promising-looking specimen.
For the next few days, the men and children cared for her and made her a little sheltered pen.
She never did like the pen though, and much preferred to come into the house, where we were.
During this time, it was decided to call her “Calypso”, in honour of the little orchids that grew in the area where she was born. This was soon shortened to “Lippy”, and that was her name for as long as she lived with us.
Things were going along much too well to last. Then it happened: Ralph and his assistant had to go to another park for two weeks, and guess who became the Moose Sitter? In those two weeks, I learned to create the fastest formula in the west.
Lippy was growing into a fat, sassy pet, running in and out of the house with the kids, playing with the dogs, and demanding her feedings on time. First feeding was around 5 a.m.: two or three beer bottles full of warm milk formula. This was repeated every three or four hours, with occasional small snacks in between. When she was hungry, there was no mistaking her wants: she would stand at the back door, and cry like a big baby.
Later on she was to eat a specially prepared nutrient ration, and then she learned to browse on the various shrubs and trees that support the wild moose population.
That first summer, however, she guzzled milk in fantastic amounts. She did enjoy other foods too, such as my house plants, and she was given to trying anything she could reach on the table or in the kitchen.
One day, while I was outside, she went into the kitchen and ate an entire lemon meringue pie. I’ll never forget her face, with meringue clinging to her long eye-lashes, and lemon all over her muzzle.
Another of her dietary habits that caused me much annoyance was when she saw me picking flowers, she came right along behind me and chewed up the rest of the plants. In the wild, a calf moose learns what is safe to eat by watching its mother browsing.
The first day the men returned home, I mixed the formula, told Ralph that feeding time was at 2 o’clock, and went visiting. I returned late in the afternoon, to be met by a sobbing, distraught moose who literally threw herself into my arms. She sounded like a very upset baby, complete with sobs, and tear-wet face.
“She won’t eat” announced my rather annoyed husband. “Think the thing might be sick.”
Being used to children, I rather doubted this and set about heating her milk. Called to her feeding place at the back steps, she wolfed down almost a half-gallon of milk. Isn’t it good to feel needed? To Lippy, I was Mother.
Lippy ran free all that summer, but when fall and hunting season arrived, Ralph made her a large pen to live in. The pen was well-marked, so no one could say they hadn’t seen it. We even hung up signs, to inform the public that this was a No Shooting area. But, with all these precautions, she was still very nearly killed.
One afternoon, a truck screeched to a stop near the house and two men jumped out. With their guns, they ran towards the pen. I set a new record for the 100 yard dash, yelling loudly at these “hunters” not to shoot. The men quickly got back into their truck and drove off. Later, at the Game Checking Station, they told Ralph about this crazy dame up on the hill who had a moose in a pen.
At the end of hunting season, Lippy was free again. She had now become a big girl, but she still wanted to play games. One of her favourite ways of showing affection was to back a person into a wall, and then rub them with her head. Very affectionate, especially from a 300-pound moose!
Another of her quirks was a passion for the smell of gasoline fumes. When we were fueling the car, she would try to get into the fumes, and breath deeply. Filling the car became a regular circus, as I’d run the hand pump, keep the nozzle in the car tank, and push away the moose who was determined to get high! When new fuel drums were delivered to the Ranger residence, I would wash the tops carefully with hot soapy water, to remove any sniffable fuel residue.
At this time I was driving the children to and from their school, which necessitated leaving home twice a day. Lippy did not like this one little bit. She would lie down in the driveway, and not let us leave the yard.
When I finally either moved her or out-witted her, and headed down the road, she would follow us, crying loudly.
On one occasion, she stopped at our friends’ home and walked out onto their balcony. After that, they had a barrier to put up whenever it looked like she was going to stop.
In the spring of 1964 we needed to move to Kamloops for Ralph’s work and were faced with an unhappy situation. We could not take Lippy with us, and could not turn her loose in the woods, as she had learned to trust people. We contacted the Edmonton Game Farm, and they came with a special van to take her to a new home.
There she could live in freedom yet still be near people.
Our lives are richer for the year Lippy lived with us, and I’d be a liar if I said we didn’t miss her.