WDFW Perspectives: Scott McCorquodale, Ph.D. on taming of “Buttons” the elk

By now, many people have read of recent events surrounding an habituated Washington elk known to some as “Buttons”. At face value, the backstory seems heartwarming … an elk that is very friendly with people. But, there are untold ways stories like this can end badly. And they usually do. This story started like so many, with a baby animal presumed to be an orphan. Unfortunately, instead of people making choices to get her into the hands of a licensed rehabber — people who have facilities and techniques to raise an orphan without creating dependence and unnatural bonds with people — she was raised with lots of direct human contact. In the hands of a skilled wildlife rehabber, the outlook for releasing her back into the wild would have been very good. As many have posted on social media in recent weeks — her interactions with people led to her identifying almost exclusively with people, and uninterested in those of her own species. She wandered neighborhoods where people continued intimate contact with her — hand feeding her, brushing her, caressing her, giving her human junk food, taking photos of children sitting on her back. She was repeatedly rewarded for intimate contact with humans. We obliterated the line between her and us. She became akin to a barnyard pony. People have posted how wonderful this is. But, it isn’t wonderful. It is really quite awful. If you have ever seen a herd of elk during the fall in a high mountain meadow covered with frost — the shrill bugle of bulls wafting through the trees — the misty breath of elk pulsing visibly with each exhale — you might know how awful what has happened to her is. She was born for something far beyond our amusement.

This elk has a completely unique assortment of elk genes. But, those genes will never contribute to a future wild elk generation. She is a genetic dead end. She will never have a calf of her own. Because people decided it would be so. Some have said she chose this life. But she didn’t. She was trained by people to accept this life. We chose this path for her. People’s intentions were good, but the outcome was predictable. We chose what felt good for us, not what was ultimately good for her. And it happened over and over again.

Not all habituation of wildlife ends badly. In many national parks and refuges you can enjoy viewing wildlife that are to some degree habituated. Their natural fear of humans has been reduced through repeated benign exposure to people, but they still live among their kind in natural places and otherwise behave as do their more wild counterparts. You can view Alaskan brown bears from gravel viewing pads in places like McNeil River Falls in very close proximity to these giant carnivores. I myself have trekked among wild mountain gorillas in Rwanda that have been habituated to human presence. They are still otherwise gorillas. Such examples work because 2 rules are held inviolable — the animals are NEVER fed by people, and they are NEVER touched, even if that were possible. Those lines were crossed hundreds, if not thousands of times with the elk called Buttons. The educational message “a fed bear is a dead bear” is not just about bears. The long-term future of wild animals that are food-conditioned by people is bleak.

I have spent most of my 30+ year career as an elk research biologist. I have done field research on elk in virtually every part of Washington where they occur. They are iconic Washington wildlife and incredibly fascinating. Wild elk are behaviorally complex and intelligent. I am passionate about elk. The story of this particular elk makes me very sad. Was what we took from her worth the selfies and Facebook videos? How can it be wonderful that she ignores the smells, sounds, and sight of her own kind? We have dulled her instincts. She lives in a place that is not us and not them.

Many, including me, have sought a way to extend this elk’s life and keep her out of trouble. That may be the sum total of what is still possible for this elk. Because her behavior has been so impacted by people, she has now been transferred to permanent captivity at Woodland Park Zoo. She will get great care there and will live with a small number of her kind. But, hers is still a tragic story. Perhaps the last thing “Buttons” can teach us is that we need a commitment to not let this happen again to any other elk. Time will tell if we are listening.

For a recent news release on this story, visit: https://wdfw.wa.gov/news/mar1519b/

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“Buttons” the elk, a few hours before transfer to Woodland Park Zoo. Photo: Jason Wettstein, WDFW

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