Sunday, October 16, 2011

Laminitis in a Moose? Vermont's "Pete the Moose" Isn't the First--Just the Most Famous--Moose to Founder

The state of Vermont is astir today with the news that one of its most beloved--and controversial--residents has succumbed to what is being called "laminitis". The latest victim of the merciless foot disease is not one of the Green Mountain State's signature Morgans. It's not an iconic draft horse on one of the dairy farms. It's not even a backyard pony.

This time laminitis--or something like it--has led to a sad ending for a moose.

Not just any moose, mind you, but Pete the Moose. And the citizens want to know what's been going on.

First, the setting: Vermont's Northeast Kingdom. A section of the United States inhabited by far fewer people than animals, and visited by even fewer. That said, it is one of the most beautiful places on earth. You just can't quite get there from here. Or anywhere. It's a corner of Vermont wedged between Quebec and New Hampshire, but that doesn't really matter because you probably won't ever have a reason to go there.

moose feet!
These might be considered "normal" moose claws, or hooves. (Cathleen Shattuck photo)

Then, some background: Pete was injured as a mooseling. He was attacked by dogs and left to die. But he was nursed back to health for over a year by David the Vermonter. They became attached, best buddies, an odd couple in the interspecies world order of things. Things got messy when the state government ruled that David didn't "own" Pete. They decided that if Pete couldn't live on his own in the wild, it would be all right if Pete went to live in a hunting preserve with some imported elk.

Then the state had second thoughts. Things got even messier. Just suppose one of those elk had a disease like BSE, or "chronic wasting disease" (think: a wildlife version of mad cow disease) and Pete contracted it. Then suppose somehow Pete escaped and went back into the wild and spread the disease around Vermont.

Enter: lawyers, courts, the governor. Was this a wildlife issue or an agriculture crisis? Pete received the death sentence. But wait! Then the governor (also named Pete) stepped in and pardoned him, forcing a stay of execution.

An ABC-TV news segment on Pete in late 2009

Pete became quite a celebrity. He had over 6000 "friends" on Facebook. If you can have a big cat or a poisonous snake for a pet, why can't David have a moose?

A video of David, Pete's friend, when the state government was threatening to "remove" Pete. He was living in a 600-acre private game sanctuary for elk at the time but the state thought he was a public health risk. 

Things went quiet for a while. We didn't hear anything about Pete. Then he turned up dead. Or didn't turn up, as the case may be.

The news this morning from Vermont is that Pete died on Labor Day when "tranquilized" (no further information given) in order to have his hooves trimmed.

Vermont Fish &Wildlife Department Commissioner Patrick Berry said in a press statement: "Most of the people who have been fans of Pete the Moose have never fully understood the story," he said. "It's not a good idea to trap wildlife behind a fence and feed them beer and doughnuts. This is a good example of what happens when you don't keep wildlife wild."

"The hoof condition he was being treated for likely was caused by eating corn and other foods not part of a moose’s normal diet during his years in captivity," Berry is quoted as saying in the Burlington Free Press.

According to ABC News, Pete enjoyed munching on apples, bananas and Snickers candy bars but refused to eat Milky Ways.

Meanwhile, Pete's body disappeared. According to state law, the carcass needs to be tested for chronic wasting disease.

So in the Northeast Kingdom of Vermont, there may still a moose on the loose  but someone is going to need to produce a carcass.

Laminitis in moose around the country may actually be on the rise. North Dakota is one state that is concerned about the problem, as moose migrate into farmland and feed on grain. A study by Butler et al followed a series of necropsies on four moose believed to have died from grain overload. In particular, "Case A" from that study was described: "... was in good body condition and was presented at necropsy with moderate postmortem change. It was noted that all 4 digits had severely overgrown claws. The hind and front claws were approximately 30 cm and 20 cm longer than normal, respectively. Separation of the dorsal claw from the third phalanx was evident. Severe congestion was noted around the distal aspects of the third phalanx in both front digits.... A diagnosis of severe, chronic laminitis in all 4 feet was made." That paper was published in Alces, the journal of moose.

A paper published by the University of Zurich chronicled a zoo moose diagnosed with laminitis. Postmortal radiographic diagnosis of laminitis in a captive European moose (Alces alces) by Clauss et al is available as a free pdf download.

"Abnormal keratinazation" on the Redoubt Blog
In 2009, the Redoubt Reporter on the Kenai Peninsula in Alaska marveled when a moose was hit on the highway and its hooves proved to be at least 6-10 inches longer than normal. (See photo.)

Research going back to 1977 in Alaska begs the definition of what laminitis is. Indications of Copper Deficiency in a Subpopulation of Alaskan Moose by Flynn et al described a copper and sulfur deficiency that caused abnormal keratinization of moose hooves. "Faulty keratinization was linked with copper deficiency by both mineral element analyses and photoelectron spectroscopy. Decreased copper and sulfur hoof content and an abnormal electron spectroscopy chemical analysis (ESCA) spectra indicated incomplete sulfur cross-linking in the hoof keratin."
According to the European Bioinformatics Institute, keratinization is defined as "the process in which the cytoplasm of the outermost cells of the vertebrate epidermis is replaced by keratin. Keratinization occurs in the stratum corneum, feathers, hair, claws, nails, hooves, and horns."

That paper was published in the Journal of Nutrition and can be downloaded for free by clicking on the link.

Hoof deformities of elk have also been studied; a poster presentation showing anatomical specimen can be viewed as a free-download pdf file:
Severe Hoof Deformities in Free-Ranging Elk in Western Washington State by Han et al.

Who knows what killed Pete the Moose? Someone somewhere does, and maybe the truth will out. The latest news reports are stressing that an error or adverse reaction in the use of the tranquilzer probably actually killed Pete, but still more information is needed about what was wrong with his hooves.

There is no doubt, however, that some sort of hoof condition is becoming common in moose across North America. Shall we blame it on global warming? Acid rain? Encroaching civilization?

One thing is for sure: it's not the moose's fault, and the relatively recent onset of the problem suggests that maybe something can be done to help these most fascinating animals stay on their feet. Something's not right but in studying abnormal moose hooves perhaps we'll learn something about horses, too.


Moosewatch blog from Utah: A kind human has been feeding a wild moose horse feed and hay. Includes photos of the moose's deformed claws. Interesting to see that the deformity is visible on both lateral claws of the front feet.

Presentation "Moose Management in North Dakota" by William Jensen, North Dakota Department of Fish and Game at the Minnesota Moose Summit, 2008.

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