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Dead moose in the middle of an Alaska yard, stinking to high heaven?

Rick Sinnott
A dead moose in an Anchorage yard. Rick Sinnott photo

So you just realized the moose that was lying in your yard for the last couple of days has rolled over and died. Who you gonna call?

Ten thousand years ago this was an easy decision. You dealt with it yourself. Or you might have hollered for a few friends to give you a hand. You might have followed an established custom or deferred to the head of the tribe or a village elder.

Society has grown much more complicated. An English hunting law, enforced since at least the early 13th century, dictated who could receive a wild animal found dead in the woods. Because deer and other wildlife were the property of the king or the local lord, an inquest was held. The official presumption would be that someone had killed the animal illegally. The law required that inquiries be made in the four closest towns and that six witnesses vouch for the finder’s innocence. Meanwhile, the hide and antlers were kept for the crown and the meat was carried to the nearest house of lepers or other sick house. If no sick house was in the vicinity, the carcass was given to sick or poor individuals.

There appeared to be no differentiation between a fresh and a badly decomposed carcass. Suffice it to say that, without refrigeration, people living in the Middle Ages were accustomed to well-ripened meat.

These days, in America at least, moose and other wild animals are owned by us all and managed by the state. People have changed too. If handed a knife and asked to field dress a moose a large number of Alaskans wouldn’t know where to begin. And most of us wouldn’t want to eat a moose that's been marinating in its own juices for a day or more. So who you gonna call?

Alaskans don’t like to waste wild meat

That depends on where in Alaska you live. Most of the state is rural, and rural moose seldom die in someone’s yard unless they’ve been shot. Becky Schwanke, the Glennallen area biologist with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, says no one has called to complain about a dead moose on their property in her 10 years in the community. She attributed the paucity of calls to low moose densities -- and not very many yards -- in the forested reaches of the Nelchina Basin. Other rural biologists report similar experiences. They suspect that the occasional unanticipated carcass is dealt with by whomever finds it.

Finding a dead moose in your yard turns out to be a symptom of living in one of Alaska’s larger communities. Anchorage area Fish and Game biologist Jessy Coltrane said the number of complaints she investigates varies widely. Last year only one person called to complain about a dead moose, but more typically she fields about 15 complaints per year, slightly over half of them involving calves. The number of carcasses has declined as the Anchorage moose population has fallen over the past decade. Don Young, the Fairbanks area state biologist, estimated he sees five to 25 moose carcasses per year, depending on how severe winter proves to be. But regardless of where you live, your local Fish and Game biologist will want to know when you’ve discovered a dead moose. If you call the state troopers, the local police or city officials will probably tell you to call Fish and Game anyway.

Fish and Game biologists are keen on using wild meat if it can be salvaged. But first a biologist will attempt to determine if the carcass is edible. If it died more than a day ago, the meat has started to decompose. That doesn’t necessarily mean it’s inedible. As my mammalogy professor told me some 40 years ago, meat that hasn’t been cooked probably won’t kill you, even if it smells like hamburger that’s sat in your fridge a week too long. Our ancestors ate a lot of what would now be considered tantamount to roadkill, and it wasn’t always freshly dead. 

Like medieval peasants, Alaskans don’t like to waste wild meat. However, after a century of oversight by the Food and Drug Administration, we tend to have higher standards for comestibles.

A digression on decomposition

You’ll hear differing opinions on how long a carcass can decompose and still be safe to eat. For example, the New Zealand Department of Conservation has issued criteria for assessing when it’s safe to eat a decomposing marine mammal. The guidelines primarily seem to address the traditional diet of the Maoris, noting that palatability is “entirely personal and so subjective, it is almost impossible to describe” and that “one influence can override all usual criteria of palatability and common sense, and that is hunger.”

Closer to home, John James Audubon, steaming up the Missouri River in 1843, noted Native Americans fishing carcasses of drowned bison out of the river during spring floods. “No matter how putrid their flesh may be,” Audubon wrote in his journal, “providing the hump proves at all fat, they swim to them, drag them ashore, and cut them to pieces -- after which they cook and eat this loathsome and abominable flesh.” Even sloughing hair, a sign of advanced decomposition, proved no deterrent. But modern tastes have changed, and most Americans will never experience hunger pangs severe enough to ignore their mother’s advice, the expiration date on the package, or common sense.

Surely the modern diet with the least adherents is the Primal Diet, which encourages, in addition to fruits and roots, the consumption of raw meat, sometimes tenderized and flavored by letting it go “high.” Nevertheless, it gives one a sense of what is possible.

One of the diet’s chief proponents claimed to have eaten a pound of two-year-old rotten meat without harm. There’s even a recipe for preparing and eating rotten meat that advises you to place small chunks of meat in a Mason jar. “After one month of frequent airing and rotting, begin sampling marble-sized amounts of the somewhat [sic!] ‘high’ meat daily.” This postmodern method of preserving meat suggested aging the chunks “for as long as you desire.” Eventually, a white mold may start to form and “the rotting meat can turn blue or purple or even completely liquefy.” These stages are far beyond the level of decomposition deemed edible by New Zealand’s Department of Conservation. I added this paragraph to show just how far our tastes have evolved -- for most of us anyway. I hope you aren’t trying to read this at the breakfast table.

300 to 500 pounds of tasty, lean meat

Calling Fish and Game doesn’t necessarily mean someone will come to your house to remove the carcass. You might even hear the phrase “If the state doesn’t want it, it’s yours.”

The first hurdle will be determining cause of death. If the moose died from starvation, which is not an unusual fate in late winter, or from a disease, a Fish and Game biologist is unlikely to allow anyone to eat it. The Greek philosopher Pythagorus warned, “Avoid the flesh of animals that die on their own.” That’s still a good rule of thumb after two and a half millennia.

Determining cause of death need not involve any testing or much skill. A wildlife biologist will look for signs of blunt trauma, usually administered by a motor vehicle, or bullet holes. A carcass with no obvious mortal injuries is generally deemed unfit for human consumption. Playing it safe is the state’s unofficial policy.

Time of death is also relevant. Even in winter, a dead adult moose can retain body heat for more than a day and its digestive tract is home to millions of bacteria. The warmth and bacteria accelerate decomposition. Moose that have been dead more than a day may still be edible, but they are in the process of becoming increasingly less palatable.

An adult moose fit for human consumption can supply 300 to 500 pounds of tasty, lean meat. You may be tempted to keep it for yourself, seeing how it died in your yard. That may be allowed in rural areas, but in larger communities and along the state’s limited road system the lucky beneficiary of the meaty windfall is governed by a list of approved names and charities kept by Alaska State Troopers. Predominantly intended for road-killed moose, the list can be extensive and any edible carcass is grist for the mill.

Another factor weighing against letting the homeowner keep the moose is the same concern that troubled the English king, the reason why his officials donated the meat to the sick and poor. Giving able-bodied citizens the meat might encourage them to kill a deer -- or in this case a moose -- feign innocence, and profit from their ill-gotten gain.

What happens when the moose isn’t edible?

Moose that have died of starvation or disease and those deemed too long dead are not reckoned worth salvaging for human consumption. However, they can still be useful.

Trappers often bait their sets with moose meat, but aren’t allowed to use edible meat harvested by hunters. An experienced area biologist keeps a list of trappers interested in obtaining a carcass or two. If a trapper is willing to haul the carcass off, the homeowner is relieved of a problem and the biologist doesn’t have to break a sweat.

Unfortunately, the trapper gambit only works when trapping seasons are open. By late winter you can’t give a dead moose away. It’s time for the biologist to invoke the old English adage “finders, keepers.” With any luck, this will happen only once or twice a year at most. A responsible homeowner will find a way to load the carcass into a pickup truck or trailer and haul it to the landfill. Another option is to hire someone to move the carcass. This task typically costs several hundred dollars.

Homeowners ignore the problem -- or drag the carcass a short distance off their property -- at considerable risk. A rotting carcass will attract scavengers, like coyotes, ravens and dogs. Once the weather warms up in spring, grizzly bears are also likely to find the carcass, even in big city neighborhoods, and they have a well-earned reputation for defending “their” kill. Years ago an Anchorage homeowner solved the problem by excavating a large hole in his backyard with his backhoe, shoving the moose in and covering it with earth. Not many of us have that option.

A biologist may be hard nosed about her decision to divest the state of its interest in an unsalvageable moose carcass. But there can be extenuating circumstances that might elicit some help from the state. Elderly people on fixed incomes with no family nearby might convince a biologist to move the moose to the landfill or another safe location.

If the biologist believes a grizzly bear is likely to find the carcass in a day or so, public safety might trump his natural reluctance to spend time and energy fixing a homeowner’s problem.

All things considered

A homeowner who wins the moose carcass jackpot may feel like he’s been dumped on, but it’s a rare day when a state biologist can’t find some satisfactory solution.

Stumbling across the occasional moose carcass isn’t as bad as living in New York City during the heyday of horse-drawn transportation. In 1880 the Big Apple removed 15,000 dead horses from its streets, and a horse weighs as much as a moose. In some instances a horse carcass was “left to rot until it had disintegrated enough for someone to pick up the pieces.” City officials fielded complaints of “dead horses and vehicular entanglements” clogging Broadway. The problem was universal in urban areas. Chicago, for instance, hauled off 9,202 dead horses in 1916, shortly before motor vehicles replaced horses and begat a new suite of problems.

Of course, dealing with a dead horse is a snap compared to dealing with the manure and urine it produced while alive. New York City contained an estimated 170,000 horses in the late 1880s, almost as many horses as Alaska has moose. With each horse producing 15 to 35 pounds of manure and about a quart of urine each day, city streets and sidewalks were awash in smelly brown liquid.

On the other hand, New Yorkers haven’t had to contend with bears since about the time the English took New Amsterdam from the Dutch in exchange for a tiny Indonesian island.

The next time you find a dead moose in your yard, take a deep breath and thank your lucky stars you don’t live in New York City at the turn of the 20th century. All things considered, this will be easier to deal with than a daily delivery of 3,000 tons of horse manure -- or its modern equivalent.

Rick Sinnott is a former Alaska Department of Fish and Game wildlife biologist. The views expressed here are the writer's own and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch. Contact him at rickjsinnott(at)gmail.com.