Every year the Goldpanners baseball team of Fairbanks, Alaska plays in the Midnight Sun Baseball Game. The game begins at midnight on the summer solstice, lit only by the sun. Fairbanks is only 160 miles south of the Arctic Circle, the sun is just beginning to set in the north as the game gets under way and, at its conclusion some three hours later, the sun begins to rise again – also in the north.
Baseball is not the only sport that could be played on the solstice. And, the idea of riding a moose is not new. See you at the polo grounds.
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In northern Europe and Asia moose were used to carry riders and loads across inhospitable terrain. As a mount the moose has no equal in crossing bogs and windfalls, slipping through thickets, climbing over rocks, and swimming swiftly across broad, dangerous rivers. In the dense coniferous forests and bogs that cover much of northern Europe and Asia, a rider on horseback cannot outrun a rider on a moose-as Russian general Yermak Timofeyich found out when he began the conquest of Siberia on behalf of Czar Ivan the Terrible in the sixteenth century. To gain the upper hand over the Siberian moose riders, General Timofeitsch banned moose husbandry, killed off domesticated moose, and systematically hunted down moose riders to flay, impale, or mutilate them publicly as examples to others. It is likely that moose husbandry in the northern forests was just frequent enough to be a nuisance, since as we now know moose-for all their advantages as beasts of burden- are difficult to keep in captivity. Had trained moose been common and easy wards, the tough, adventuresome Cossacks would surely have changed mounts and pursued the moose riders on equal terms.
In Europe moose were also used to pull sleighs great distances across frozen wastes. One drawback to using moose in this way is that horses unacquainted with moose shy wildly and become uncontrollable when confronted by these strange-looking creatures. In the seventeenth century, the city council of the Estonian town of Dorpat (Tartu) forbade domesticated moose on its streets. One can only imagine what havoc horses out of control, hitched to a coach or wagon, could wreak in the town’s narrow streets after suddenly coming face to face with a moose innocently pulling a sleigh into town.
King Karl XI of Sweden considered mounting a cavalry regiment on moose, probably to take advantage of the terror they would strike into the hearts of enemy horses. No canon and musket fire, no lances and sabers would be needed to disperse the enemy’s cavalry charge. The mere appearance of moose on the battleground would put the enemy’s cavalry into heedless flight. Alas, the king’s grand plan came to naught, and experiments in domesticating moose in this century make it evident why. Moose could never prosper as cavalry mounts because of their catastrophic susceptibility to livestock diseases, and because of the great difficulties in feeding moose properly.
As early as 1869, the Russian zoologist and explorer Alexander von Middendorff wrote to the Tsar’s Government:“
“Even the civilized Europe these days has failed to domesticate the moose, the animal that doubtlessly can be of great utility. Our government ought to apply all possible efforts toward the domestication of this animal. This is doable. The reward would be great, and so would be the glory.”
After the seventeenth century, moose husbandry became a forgotten art for nearly four hundred years. In Sweden there was a debate in the late 18th century about the national value of using the moose as a domestic animal. Among other things, the moose was proposed to be used in postal distribution, and there was a suggestion to develop a moose-mounted cavalry. Such proposals remained unimplemented, mainly because the extensive hunting for moose nearly drove it to extinction and because of aggressiveness during the rutting period.
The idea of the moose domestication did not get much traction in Czarist Russia. However, it reappeared in the 1930s’ Soviet Union; it was suggested at the time that moose cavalry could be efficiently used even in the deep snow. In 1934, the Soviet Government’s Nature Reserve Committee ordered creation of moose reserves (zapovedniks) and moose breeding centers. Experimental work, initiated by Petr Alexandrovich Manteufel, took place at a number of locations: in Yakutia, at the Serpukhov Experimental Game Farm, and in the Buzuluksy Bor Nature Reserve in the Orenburg Region.
Russian scientists tackled the issue of moose husbandry systematically-and were successful. They discovered that moose could be trained to give milk, carry loads or riders, pull sleds and logs, go to pasture, and return willingly to stables. However, the work was not finished in time for the World War II, and when the war came, the entire idea of cavalry as a combat force was swept away.
After the war, the idea of domesticating the moose was pursued again, with the focus on agricultural use. It was thought that the moose, whose very name means twig eater in an Algonquian language, could provide an ideal way of improving the utilization of the biomass production potential of the taiga of northern and eastern Russia, which are not particularly suitable for either food crop planting or conventional animal husbandry. If the moose could be farmed, they could be provided with feed practically for free, utilizing the by-products of timber harvesting: tree branches and bark.
To study the behavior of the moose, each animal at Kostroma Moose Farm is equipped with a radio transmitter.
The first experimental moose farm, led by Yevgeny Knorre, was launched in 1949 by the staff of the Pechora-Ilych Nature Reserve, outside of the settlement of Yaksha in the Komi Republic. Rare photos from that period, one of a moose being ridden and one of a moose pulling a sledge, reproduced from Ye. P. Knorre’s 1969 paper, “Behavioral changes in elk in the process of its domestication”, can be seen at one of the Kostroma Moose Farm web site’s pages.
Since 1963, moose breeding has continued at Kostroma Moose Farm, which had a herd of 33 tame moose as of 2003. Although at this stage the farm is not expected to be a profit-making enterprise, it obtains some income from the sale of moose milk and from visiting tourist groups. Its main value, however, is seen in the opportunities it offers for the research in the physiology and behavior of the moose, as well as in the insights it provides into the general principles of animal domestication.
A fully grown moose can carry about 275 pounds (125 kg) and work with a sleigh laden with 600 to 800 pounds (3 00-400 kg); it can pull a heavier sleigh, but not all day. Its walking speed is 1.8 to 2.5 miles per hour (3-4 km/h), and the comfortable working range in a four- to six-hour working day is about 12.5 miles (20 km). Greater performances are possible. Moose can carry packs through the roughest of terrain without doing the slightest damage to the pack. They crawl under windfalls, slither across swamps, jump obstacles, negotiate thickets, and swim torrents. Yet at the end of the day, the packs remain securely in place. Hand-reared moose have utter faith in their trainers. They will, for instance, calmly walk up to an aircraft whose engines are howling. Cow moose trained for milking shower their keepers with affection-a “problem” that, in one form or another, has been reported by all keepers of moose. The most useful working moose, not surprisingly, are castrated bulls, which grow large and strong and are easy to handle. Those who have kept tame moose report that the experience is more like keeping a friendly, loyal dog (one six feet high at the shoulder) than like hosting a member of the deer family.
Although moose are useful and have some endearing characteristics, one reason they were never domesticated is that they are notoriously difficult to feed and keep healthy in captivity. Attempts by Russian scientists to subsidize the natural forage of moose with oats, barley, and wheatgerm failed as the moose became ill. What work the moose did perform was sustained by natural forages. Today, we know that the natural diet of moose can be supplemented with oat mash, beets, and potatoes; however, disease remains a problem. Moose are not only susceptible to livestock diseases, but also to the diseases of other deer species. American moose have an especially dismal record in captivity.
A problem hindering the domestication of moose is that they cannot be worked year round. In late winter, spring, and early summer, they are thin and weak and cannot be used as beasts of burden on natural forage alone.