It’s a chilly, snowy December morning, but Atka is living his best life.
The Alaska moose stops to lick some snow in Rocky Mountain Wild at Cheyenne Mountain Zoo, before wandering over to check out the humans standing on the bridge ogling his 2-year-old, 756-pound massiveness. But oops, those dang antlers, caught again on part of his exhibit. These are only his second set of antlers and they’re lopsided — one side’s a little longer than the other because he accidentally broke half off when he ran into something.
“He’s still new at learning how to navigate with them,” said Erika Furnes, senior keeper in Rocky Mountain Wild and Atka’s primary trainer.
The big guy disentangles himself and ambles over to his training panel, hopeful Furnes has his favorite snack of all time — Wasa crackers.
“He could probably eat a bucket and a half,” Furnes said.
What’s Atka’s backstory?
Grab a tissue, it’s a sad one. Outside Anchorage, Alaska, a hiker and Atka’s mother came into contact. She was wildly protective of her newborn and to save himself, the hiker killed her. But he stayed with the baby moose until the wildlife department retrieved him and took him to The Alaska Zoo in Anchorage. After living there for a bit, Atka was transported via FedEx plane to Colorado. He was 8 weeks old and 90 pounds when he arrived in the Springs in July 2020.
Will he get bigger?
Possibly. Alaska moose can grow to be almost 1,400 pounds, which means he could double in size. He might be done growing around 6 or 7 years old.
What’s the big guy like?
Intelligent, great at learning training behaviors, super curious about humans. He’s known to pick people out of the crowd and follow them around the exhibit. And he’s observant. If keepers change anything in his environment, he’s keen to check it out immediately. And he’s also a bit mercurial about his food. He always loves a Wasa cracker and elm, cottonwood and aspen branches, but sometimes he loves a banana and sometimes he does not. He usually likes apples and melons, such as watermelon, but the jury’s continually changing on blueberries.
Is he the first moose at Cheyenne Mountain Zoo?
No. The zoo also was home to Tahoma, a Canada moose who died of old age in 2020. He was just shy of 13 and the oldest moose in human care in the U.S. at the time. He also was the first moose in human care to do voluntary hoof care at a zoo, said Rachel Wright, the zoo’s public relations and social media manager. A collection of Tahoma’s impressive antlers adorn the side of a building in Atka’s exhibit.
It’s highly unusual for a zoo to have a moose, Wright said, as most don’t have the space for such a large animal. There’s also no Species Survival Plan Program by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums for Alaska moose, as they’re not threatened or endangered. Cheyenne Mountain Zoo is known as the moose zoo around the U.S. due to its rare family member, and they offer animal encounters with Atka, with the potential of feeding him a snack. It’s all dependent, of course, on his appetite.
“You can always feed a giraffe a cracker,” Wright said, “but to feed a moose a cracker is a once in a lifetime opportunity.”
Let’s talk more about those antlers.
Boy moose shed and grow a pair every year. Atka shed his first pair in April, when most younger moose lose their antlers. Older male moose can lose them around December or January. As the antlers grow, they have a lot of vessels going to them and are a soft material, which is why they’re easily broken. Antler growth correlates to testosterone levels, and the antlers are all about helping boy moose prove their worth to the ladies come mating season. They grow back bigger every year of the moose’s life until they reach a peak.
Will the zoo try to find Atka a lady?
No. Male moose are solitary creatures in the wild, so the zoo plans to mimic their lifestyle. And since Alaska moose don’t have a Species Survival Plan Program from AZA, there are no plans to find another moose.
And what’s that hanging fur thing under his neck?
It goes by two names: dewlap or bell. It’s a fold of loose skin hanging from the neck or throat of an animal. Nobody knows for certain what the dewlap does for a moose. Some research claims it helps them during breeding season when they make urine wallows, which means they go in the same spot and sometimes use their front feet to splash urine up on them. The dewlap helps diffuse their scent as they stride through the forest — all in the name of attracting the ladies.
And that nose. It’s so big.
Truth. Moose noses have evolved to be so big to warm up the air before it goes into their lungs. Also, when they dive under water to eat algae, their noses will close up so they don’t inhale water.
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