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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Field Note: “Fight Card” -- Elk at Jasper National Park in Alberta, Canada

Published: May 22, 2021

By Mark Seth Lender

"The clinch" happens when elk antlers jamb. (Photo: (c) Mark Seth Lender)

Elk are big, potentially dangerous creatures, yet they usually give numerous warnings before they charge. Living on Earth's Explorer in Residence Mark Seth Lender explains.

Elk are sexist. The males dominate. That is the way they are constructed. Female elk have little independence. That said, to my certain knowledge elk have never stoned their women to death or burned them at the stake, or called them Infidels nor subjected them to Inquisition.

Elk do have a reputation for being dangerous to humans and under certain circumstances that can be true. However, they have a litany of warnings including eye contact, bugling (a wonderful sound by the way), antler raking, standing tall and walking in your direction. All this before a full-on charge. Even then that charge is apt to be a bluff, ending in an antler-toss close enough to make the point but well short of contact. I watched the bull of this story run through his entire repertoire for the benefit of a group of tourists who came too close, warning them off eleven times before making just such a bluff charge and antler toss. And if you push your luck to the point that he connects? Don’t blame the elk.

Likewise in combat with each other elk are designed not to harm. Sparring partners (gloves on) is the perfect metaphor. Elk antlers interdigitate which avoids as much as possible the loss of eyes, the cracking of skulls, the penetration of vital organs. In most circumstances neither combatant will be injured. Unless the antlers jamb (the accidental, unbreakable clinch of which I speak). I wonder if we will occupy the planet long enough to learn that trick from them.

(Author’s Note: The phrase “Flame of Pure Fire” comes from Ring Lardner Jr.’s description of Jack Dempsey in the ring.)

Back to Mark Seth Lender Field Notes


Hear Mark's corresponding "Fight Card" essay

Mark Seth Lender's website


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