As I prepare for my annual elk hunt, I find myself thinking about the relationships between humans and wild animals.
My own relationship with elk is symbiotic. The big critters help keep me sharp and focused as I try to get within 40 yards, where it is at least theoretically possible for me to make an effective bow shot. On my part, my presence dissuades other hunters — who are almost certainly more dangerous to the elk than I — from being in the same area at the same time.
It’s a win-win.
On an even deeper level, humans and elk often exhibit very similar behaviors. These are particularly evident during September, the time of the rut, when love is in the air and bull elk behave like 19-year-old football players with fake ID cards.
Think Friday night about midnight. The festivities started at Happy Hour and everyone with half a brain has long since gone home. The remaining males are strutting around unsteadily, flexing their muscles and trying to impress the remaining women. Think posturing with a capital P.
Bull elk know a thing or two about posturing, displaying their muscles and antlers to best advantage. They are bugling, too, both to warn away other bulls and attract new females. We should all be glad that the boys in the bar are not yodeling to demonstrate their masculinity, which is the closest sound a human male can make to a bull elk bugle.
We should also be glad that the boys generally don’t get quite as worked up as a testosterone-soaked bull elk, who at the height of his excitement will whip eight-foot pine saplings into limp, pathetic rags that couldn’t yield a decent toothpick, toss large rocks over his back and urinate across his chest and under his throat, activities sure to get you tossed from many high-class establishments.
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The biggest of the bulls is willing to fight all comers and will fight many of them, but even if he wins all those battles he’ll be so worn out when the rut is over that he may not survive the winter. His death won’t matter though, because his genes will survive and he knows in his bones, if not his brain, that dancing with all those cows is his true mission. Few of the boys in the bar will be so dedicated.
A bull elk with a harem won’t usually leave his cows. I need to sneak in close enough that he’ll react to my call by coming to attack me and not running his cows away. I want my bugle to sound like I’m a wanna-be tough guy; all show, no go, a weenie bull the big fellow will be able to intimidate with a couple quick thumps and a horn in the rear.
“Come and get me,” I tell him with my little elk call. “I’m just a wise-guy teenager but if you don’t do something about me, I’ll hang around and make off with a few of your womenfolk. They’re attracted to pretty boys like me.”
Back in the bar, some of the women are actually impressed by the machinations of the slightly sodden males, indicating they, too, are slightly affected by the rut … and a few beers. But with luck their only consequence will be a fuzzy mouth and a minor league hangover.
They should thank their lucky stars. More than 95 percent of the physically eligible cow elk will come out of the rut pregnant.
Plus, the girls in the bar don’t have to listen to a bunch of yodeling.