Animal antics in the Vail Valley
VAIL VALLEY, Colorado –After all, the wild critters were in Colorado’s Vail Valley first … The proximity of wildlife is often cited by local residents as one of their favorite things about living in the Colorado high country. But sometimes, wild things get a little too close to people. Sometimes that results in an uncomfortable situation for humans and animals alike. Whether it is bears raiding the refrigerator, skunks making themselves at home under the front porch or a fox family setting up house at a busy town intersection, animal tales are often the talk of the town. Here’s a sampling of some of the area’s famed animal antics: Last February, she was arguably the most renowned elk in the country. Her fame was tied to her unusual head gear – a bar stool. The cow elk was spotted wandering around the Brush Creek Valley with the stool stuck on her head. “She’s very active. The bar stool doesn’t seem to be impairing her to any great degree. She just looks kind of goofy,” said Colorado Division of Wildlife officer Craig Wescoatt. Eventually resident Bill Johnson snapped a photo of the elk, which was featured in several state and even national media outlets including CNN. The elk’s predicament was one of the questions of the National Public Radio show “Wait, Wait … Don’t Tell Me.” The Vail Daily ran a contest asking people to write in and guess how the elk ended up with the stool on her head. Some of the more colorful accounts had her idling up to the Brush Creek Saloon for a beer when things went awry. The true story was less dramatic, but more plausible. Brush Creek resident Annie Egan reported the stool was missing from her backyard. Apparently the elk was foraging around the chair when she became entangled in it. Wescoatt noted that the elk was a wily one. Several times wildlife officers attempted to get close enough to bring her down with a tranquilizer dart, but she always stayed out of reach. As a result, the stool stayed put. “She had adapted very well to life with a bar stool on her head,” said Wescoatt. “The last I saw of her was last April, going up Abrams Creek. The stool looked like it has lost a leg.” There’s been no bar stool elk sightings for months, leading Wescoatt to theorize the animal ultimately got rid of her cranial appendage. But without a telltale bar stool on its head, one cow elk looks remarkably like any other cow elk. She may still be wandering around Brush Creek, incognito. “She became something of a celebrity and I think we would have heard about it if someone had harvested her, or found the stool,” said Wescoatt. Basements, particularly those still under construction, can prove to be the bane of a deer or elk’s existence. “We have had quite a few deer in window wells,” said Wescoatt. “In almost every one of those instances the homeowner is more concerned about getting the animal out safely, rather than property damage.” Wescoatt said one deer actually broke through the window and ended up in an Arrowhead basement. Removing that animal was difficult. While The Orchards Subdivision in Eagle was under construction, a wildlife officer had to use a a rope, tranquilizer gun and a backhoe to rescue an elk calf that tumbled into a basement that was still being built. A trackhoe operator found the young bull elk huddled in the cement foundation of a home located near the ice rink. The frantic elk alternated between attempting to jump out of the 12-foot high enclosure and resting in a shady corner. Wescoatt and fellow wildlife officer Bill Andree were summoned and tried to calm the elk with a dart from a tranquilizer gun. The dart apparently hit a bone, breaking the needle, and the medication was never delivered. The officers then climbed into the basement, tied the elk’s legs with a rope, covered its head with a jacket, then loaded into the bucket of a trackhoe operated by Logan Satterfield. Once out, the elk was placed in a truck, and then hauled out to the eastern edge of the Eagle Ranch subdivision to be released. The calf paused only a moment before trotting away. People don’t spot too many moose in Vail, period, let alone moose trapped in a confined patio space right outside their sliding glass door. This particular animal was trapped in the confined space when heavy snowfall prevented it from leaving the area. Wildlife officers eventually had to come in and tranquilize the animal to remove it from the patio. But that lead to another problem. Andree said wildlife personnel had to cut down a fence or haul the moose through the house. Turns out the latter solution proved more practical. As a result, officers had to maneuver a full-grown female moose through the Vail home. “The homeowner was a bit concerned about it,” said Andree. Those concerns were allayed by having wildlife officers videotape the operation to show that no damage resulted. The moose cooperated with the plan, succumbing to the tranquilizer and staying under while officers removed her from the premises. The animal was relocated several miles away and hasn’t ever come back to visit. As for the Vail house, the only “damage” was the mud tracked in by the people who helped with the rescue. Wildlife officers often get calls about elk and deer with Christmas lights or other items strung in their antlers. In Eagle County, animals are also often found entangled in ski area rope. When possible, wildlife officers immobilize the animals and remove the antler ornaments (see above). Sometimes it’s another animal that’s stuck in their antlers. That was the case about a year ago up Brush Creek when a pair of young bull elk became entangled in each others’ antlers. The animals tussled for hours. Andree said wildlife officials eventually managed to rope the animals and hold them still while a rescuer sawed off the antlers to free the two elk. “We try not to tranquilize them if we don’t have to.” When wildlife officers are called into help rescue wild animals, often times its little creatures instead of big ones that need help. “We get a lot of calls about skunks with their head stuck in jars,” said Wescoatt. That presents an understandably difficult dilemma that officers solve by employing a great big tarp. “Of course the trick there is getting a tarp over them before they can spray you. So far I’ve been successful,” he said. Andree’s most memorable small animal rescue was the time a Wildridge family reported a weasel living in their walls. “I cut holes in the walls until I found him and then he got out and I chased him around the basement for about an hour,” said Andree. “Ultimately, I caught him.” Freelance writer Kathy Heicher contributed to this report.