Two Biologists and a Boy: When an Animal Loses Her Young

For Highline Online, June 18, 2012.


I haven’t really seen my husband Geoff for about three days. With the snow low on the mountains animals are forced into the valley bottoms, where they’re running into people all over the place. These “interactions” are keeping Geoff – wildlife conflict specialist with Parks Canada – pretty busy. During a ten minute cross-over at breakfast this morning he told me that he was in fact with “another woman” into the wee hours of last night. She was a female elk who had birthed her calf on Jasper Park Lodge property, only to have it snatched up by what was likely a grizzly bear, wolf or cougar.

The distraught cow circled the birth area, searching desperately and charging anyone who came too close.

Geoff and his colleagues tried to move her off property, but she simply returned the moment they relented. Seeing that there was no dissuading her, Geoff sat slightly away from her, able to keep people clear of the area, until hours later the realization of her loss sank in and she began to quiet.

Photo: Jared Gricoskie, Yellow Wood Guiding at

While I write this, I feel an ache in my chest. As a biologist I know that this is nature; the grizzly needs to feed her young, too. But as a mother – an animal myself – I am awash with great sadness for her.

It reminds me of a time I was running on the Pyramid Benchland with my friend Brenda one summer afternoon.

As we ran along the marshy edge of Marjorie lake, a human-like wailing brought us staggering to a stop. It came from the water. If the loss of a child had a sound, it might be the screaming of that mother loon, watching a bald eagle decimate her clutch of eggs and newly born in her lake-side nest. Never had either of us heard such a sound, and we stood there paralyzed, watching the loon flail and shriek until she fell silent in defeat.

That was several years ago, and yet Brenda and I still recall the experience that so profoundly left its mark on us as young mothers.

What is love for a child? Is it a series of chemical happenings, designed to motivate us to protect our offspring so our genes can carry on? Or is it something we will never measure, the sum of it so much more than our biology? Is my attachment so different from the elk , frantic to find her baby, like I would be if I lost Dylan at a festival or crowded mall?

This I know: If I ever lost Dylan, I would hear the loon screaming in my head long after he was gone. And while the survival of the elk’s species and her natural instincts to procreate eventually override her grief, I’m not sure we can be certain the female elk won’t carry her loss in the muscle and flesh that make her a mother.