Monday a young moose died on the Colony Middle School campus in Palmer, Alaska.
Moose die here in Alaska all of the time, killed by hunters or the environment or predators. It happens.
What made this particular moose’s death newsworthy was that it died after apparently being harassed by the students.
The story was reported in the Anchorage Daily News, and picked up by various media outlets across the country with varying degrees of promotion. A number of animal rights organizations picked up the story. And, of course, the tale is loose in the blogosphere and the twitterverse, becoming more embellished with each retelling.
As you might imagine, a number of folks are up in arms.
As usual, both the so-called professional mainstream media, and the blogosphere are more interested in hyperbole, hysteria, headlines, outrage, self righteousness, and hype. With stories like these, and increasingly all stories, it’s getting harder and harder to tell mainstream reporting from the tabloids.
FOXNews reports: Alaska Middle School Students Scare Moose to DEATH!
AP News reports: School Moose Death!
Other headlines shout: Eighth Graders In Alaska Punished for Taunting Moose To Death! Panicked Moose commits to Suicide to Escape Children! Students Disciplined for Terrorizing Moose (this is my personal favorite. Terrorism. Yep. It always comes down to terrorism, thank you Bush Administration, thank you so very much indeed). Do a Google search, see what you come up with.
Commenters under these stories frequently note that mass murderers often killed animals as children. The commenters express outrage and demand the children be variously: punished severely, expelled, jailed, fined, and so on and so forth. Nobody actually mentioned tar, feathers, or boiling oil, but I got the impression some of them were implying it, especially on the animal rights sites. There are calls for the school staff to be fined, fired, penalized, and so on an so forth and in this case I think tar, feathers, and boiling oil were mentioned. A large number of people have called this event a horrifying tragedy. Animal rights organizations are spitting venom.
Colony Middle School is a block from my house. My son goes to school there. The moose in question was a yearling calf that was most likely in my yard last week with his mother. My son told me about the incident Monday. Over the last three days I’ve spoken to other parents and I just got off the phone with the school.
So, speaking as an experienced Alaskan, a parent, a member of the Palmer community, and as somebody who has a kid in the school in question and as such is extremely familiar with the school and the kids and the staff and for that matter, moose, allow me to say this:
Shut the hell up. All of you.
Now, take a deep breath and let’s get a little perspective here before we break out the torches and pitchforks, shall we?
Before we condemn the kids as future mass murderers, the teachers as lax and incompetent, and the moose as a martyr to Truth, Justice, and the American Way, let’s all just take a second to get a few facts straight:
Monday morning, the eighth grade physical education class headed out onto the athletic field to run laps.
The athletic areas are behind the school, and border a thickly wooded area. Moose are common, especially this time of year when they come out from the deep woods in search of new growth to feed on – such as the grass on the athletic fields. Unknown to either the students or the teachers, a young moose had wandered onto the campus.
This particular moose was a yearling calf, most likely only recently pushed out on his own by his mother. He was young, inexperienced, and not used to being alone. Now don’t get all gooey eyed and start projecting your own feelings of youthful angst onto the moose – this is a normal event, and moose aren’t people, they’re moose. Yearlings are pushed out on their own, because very soon the cow moose is going to birth this year’s generation of calves. That’s how it works. A certain number of those newly liberated yearlings aren’t going to make it. They fight other moose for territory, they get killed by wolves or bears that they don’t have the sense or experience to avoid, they get hit by cars because they haven’t learned about roads, they die from malnutrition because they can’t find enough to eat in the period between winter and summer, they die because they’re sick, or lame, or just plain unfit. This is not a tragedy, it’s just nature. Those young moose who die provide food for other animals, from bear and wolf cubs, to foxes, to eagles and crows, to bugs and mice and all manner of creatures. The ones that are hit by cars end up feeding needy families, or sled dogs if they’re too damaged for human consumption. Welcome to life in Alaska.
The moose on the Colony Middle School campus had gotten himself inside one of the fenced in athletic areas – likely he would have eventually found his way out again, or he might have tried to butt down the fence or even jump over it. This could have ended badly for the moose any number of ways. Moose get tangled up in fences and swing sets and clotheslines all over Alaska all of the time – some die as a result. Now, the path the students use for laps runs down the side of the enclosure. Two students apparently stopped when they noticed the moose, and began yelling at it. They also apparently threw pebbles and maybe a stick or two.
The moose did what moose do in such situations, it attempted to run away. Apparently it butted into the fence, which probably confused it – a chain link fence looks a lot like underbrush to a moose, something they’re used to plowing through. The moose became agitated, and charged the fence, apparently breaking its neck. Which, understandably, killed it almost instantly.
The teacher was on scene almost immediately. The students were rounded up and brought back inside. The state game office was called, as were the State Police. State game officers normally only respond if the animal is trapped or injured and needs to be freed or put down or there is some question of identification. If the animal is dead, the incident falls under the purview of the State Police – which was the case here. The police examined the situation, determined that no laws were broken and reported the kill to harvest list (a list of approved folks who will salvage the meat for proper use and charitably distribution) and dispose of the carcass. This happens all of the time here in Alaska, usually with road killed animals – about 200 hundred moose where killed in Anchorage and on Valley roads last year, just to give you an idea. Almost all of that meat was salvaged, very little went to waste).
The school examined the situation. Then the principle held a meeting with the students to explain what happened, what should have happened, what went wrong, what went right, and how to deal with such situations in the future. The principle informed us parents via the school’s automated phone message system, and via email and gave us a contact number where we could reach her for further details. She also invited us to drop by the school and discuss our concerns should we have any.The two students who were responsible for harassing the animal were suspended.
Various reports have embellished the story, adding layers of outrage and imaginary details like children playing a game of “Telephone.” But, what I’ve told you above is the actual story as it happened.
Now a couple of things:
First this is not a tragedy. A tragedy is when a child goes to sleep hungry because she’s too poor to get more than one decent meal a day. A tragedy is when a child dies from whooping cough or measles, or mumps, or some other easily preventable disease because his idiot parents are too ignorant to get him immunized. A tragedy is when children die because their parents are drug addicts or drunks or just too damned stupid to slow down on icy Alaskan roads. A dead moose isn’t a tragedy, it’s an unfortunate accident. Nothing more. Over 200 hundred moose related accidents happened in the Valley alone last year, most hit by cars. A number of those because drivers were going too fast, or talking on their phones, or daydreaming, or eating a cheese burger instead of paying attention. Strangely though, few call for those people to be tarred and feathered. Hypocrisy in action.
Second, a large number of commenters, both on blogs and under news articles like the ADN piece linked to above have stated that mass murderers start out by torturing animals, QED these kids are going to be mass murderers. For crying out loud. Folks that’s called the logical fallacy of Circular Cause and Consequence. Only a few murderers actually started out by killing or torturing animals. Not all, not a majority, a couple. A rather large number of murderers have been described by folks who knew them as “a real nice guy who wouldn’t hurt a fly.” Saying these kids are going to turn into mass murderers because they yelled at a moose makes as much sense as saying a boy scout is going to became Charlie Manson because he helped a nice old lady across the street. That’s the cause part of this fallacy, here’s the consequence part: just because a kid teases his dog or pulls on a kitten’s tail does NOT mean he is destined to become the next Jeffry Dahmer. The kids in question here yelled at a moose, they maybe threw a couple of stones at it. It wasn’t torture, it sure as hell wasn’t terrorism, it was a couple of kids being kids.
Third. As noted above, we’re talking about kids here. A number of blogs and commenters I read expressed outrage at the lack of judgment displayed by the involved children. Lack of judgment? These people are kidding right? They obviously don’t have teenagers, have never actually met a teenager, and were obviously never teenagers themselves. Seriously, only a complete idiot would expect mature behavior and sound judgment from thirteen year olds.
Fourth. A number of folks have called for the teacher and the school to be disciplined. I’m sure this will be the topic of the next school board meeting. Again, are you kidding? What exactly should the teacher have done? The kids were running cross country laps over an area of several acres. There are fences and trees and outbuilding and hills, the teacher can’t see everything or be everywhere. As immature as an eighth grader is, they are old enough that they can run laps on the school grounds without being watched every second. We’re running a middle school gym class here, not a prison exercise yard. You want jailors and end-to-end eyeball coverage for every student 100% of the time, you’re going have to pony up one hell of a lot more money to hire that kind of manpower. Think about what you’re demanding for a moment. Do you let your thirteen year olds play outside in the yard or the neighborhood without supervision? I sure do, and I’m not holding the school to higher standards of supervision than I display as a parent. I do expect the school to take reasonable precautions, and reasonable safety and security measures, and provide reasonable supervision – but it’s Alaska, there’s going to be moose in the yard (and there’s actually one outside my window at the moment, probably the mother of the moose that was killed). The teacher responded as quickly as humanly possible once she was aware of the situation. She took immediate action to ensure the safety of the children first. What else would you have her do? This entire event took place in seconds. It is possible the moose was startled more by the arrival of the running students - who it might have confused with predators - than from the actual taunts and stones.
Fifth. The kids. Look, the kids shouldn’t have yelled at the moose. They shouldn’t have thrown stones. Maybe. And maybe they should have – under other circumstance frightening the moose back into the woods and away from humans is a good idea. Look, if you don’t know about moose, you should keep your mouth shut. Moose aren’t like cows or dogs or people. Moose are not harmless – contrary to what a number of commenters claimed in the ADN. Moose are wild animals, they can be extremely dangerous. More people are killed or seriously injured by moose here in Alaska every year than by all the bear attacks combined. Moose are, however, a fact of life here. They live in the bush, but they also live in our backyards. We live beside them, we photograph them, and we eat them. The kids don’t get excited about moose around here, they’re used to them. Maybe too used to them. Most people, me included, have scared off a number of moose by yelling at them, or tossing a stick. I’ve scared dozens out of my flower beds. So, it is highly likely that the kids involved saw absolutely nothing wrong in yelling at, or tossing stones at, a moose. Should they have expected the moose to die as a result of their actions? Should they have extrapolated the moose’s panic or its response? Refer to the paragraph above regarding teenaged judgment.
Should this have happened? In a perfect world, no. Of course not. Just like all of those animals killed on Alaska’s roads every year – a lot of which are preventable – shouldn’t happen.
This was an accident, the kids didn’t intend to hurt the animal. But they did display poor judgment and the animal died. That’s all that happened. It’s bad enough, without making it worse by talking out your excretory orifice.
Here’s what you should take away from this incident
1) No child was killed or hurt. If you can’t see why this is the single most important takeaway, if you place the life of a moose above the life of a child, then I don’t want to know you. Don’t comment here, don’t email me, just go the hell away I don’t want to talk to you.
2) An animal died. This is unfortunate, but it needs to be viewed in perspective, and its death will not go entirely to waste. This young moose will feed a family for months, or a team of sled dogs. Again, a little perspective here, folks. Don’t go anthropomorphizing the moose. Maybe it panicked, maybe it didn’t. You weren’t there, you don’t know. Maybe it was afraid, maybe it was just confused, and maybe it was just doing what moose do for their own inscrutable moose reasons. It died, but its death was no more horrible than being shot, or being run down by wolves, or being hit by a car, or being torn apart by a bear, or starving to death, or dying slowly from a broken leg – all of which happens to moose every single day in Alaska. That, my friends, is just how it is. I’m not saying you should be blasé about the death of an animal, but try to have a little perspective.
3) The children learned that actions have consequences – this is something that many adults don’t seem to ever learn. It is unfortunate that they had to learn it this way, that the death of an animal was involved, but perhaps this abject lesson will serve to help them always remember and temper their actions in the future. It certainly made an impression on my son (who was not directly involved in this). If this incident prompts parents and children and teachers and Alaskans to learn something about the world they live in, then the death of this moose will mean one hell of lot more than the deaths of the other thousands who will die unlamented this year.
4) The school has implemented uniquely Alaskan training: what to do during an animal encounter. All the kids will receive this training as part of the curriculum. I’ve given my son this training myself, but I am all for its inclusion and reinforcement in the schools. These children are Alaskans, they will encounter wildlife in the future, and this single incident may very well save their lives.
5) The school took prompt, correct, and professional action. The students involved were disciplined. The parents were kept informed. There is nothing else that needs be done.
Colony Middle is an excellent school with high standards, the staff and teachers are outstanding people, and the kids themselves are an outstanding bunch of young people. This incident, though unfortunate, was an accident and nothing more.
Let’s try not to blow it out of proportion.
In the comments thread below, a commenter took exception to my use of the word "zealot" when referring the members of PETA.
Zealot - a fervent and even militant proponent of something.
Now, go read these comments under the PETA website regarding the incident described above. This is what the compassionate members this organization believe:
What a bunch of scumbags, they probably live miserable lives because nobody loves them, not even their parents. So they decide to get their anger out on a poor innocent creature, which is BS! I hope they get far worse punishment for what they did.
THIS IS AN OUTRAGE! An innocent creature was tortured and killed at the hands of bullies and cowards. This community needs to show that ANIMAL ABUSE IS TOTALLY UNACCEPTABLE AND WILL NOT BE TOLERATED. Failure to work with PETA at this time could lead to more crimes in the future.
these little thugs are cowards ... people who pick of animals are the most cowardly people alive. children like that should be held responsible and punished for their cruelty towards a sentient being.
Note the embellishment, note the logical fallacies, note the cognitive disconnect and poor logic and group think. Note that PETA apparently believes moose are sentient - a surprise to biologists everywhere, no doubt. Note the immediate and absolute condemnation of the kids involved. Note the condemnation of their parents, homes, and community, state, and governor. Note that only PETA can save the day.
There is more of the same here, in the comments under today's ADN article, and more under yesterday's. With the addition of conspiracy theories - sooner or later I'm sure we'll learn that in addition to "probably being the State Troopers kids" the youngsters involved also killed JFK by taunting him to suicide from the grassy knoll.
These are exactly the kind of people who used to burn witches, heretics, and non-believers. These are precisely the kind of people who used to enjoy a good lynching and a little frontier vigilante justice with a rope. These are the type of people who create conspiracies whole cloth in support of their fanatical beliefs.
These are the type of people who speak passionately of compassion, love, and respect - for animals - and have nothing but hate, loathing, and disgust for two teeanaged human beings.
That is exactly who these people are.
Zealot I said, zealot it is.
And that's the kindest word I could have used.