TRUE STORIES OF THE MAINE WARDEN SERVICE

THE RUNNING OF THE MOOSE

By Daren Worcester

It was lunchtime on a Friday in early June of 1975. Warden Nathaniel Berry, better known as Nat, was driving the Egypt Road in Raymond en route to scout the fishing activity at Little Sebago Lake. A half-eaten peanut butter and jelly sandwich cradled between his legs, he was strumming his fingers on the steering wheel, anxious to get on the water. Deer season—the one that starts earlier than the lawbook states and goes until the snow is deep enough to thwart poachers—was just around the corner. It would bring many long nights out in the type of cold that transforms scalding thermos contents into iced coffee. The opportunity to be boating with temperatures in the mid-sixties and the sky a canvas of royal blue was a precious commodity.

As they’d often say, it was a good day to be a warden.

Nat hadn’t worked Little Sebago in a while, and so he had a sneaking suspicion that his presence might catch a few of the local anglers off guard. Even if it didn’t, a little face time helped keep things on the up and up when he wasn’t around. It was a win-win situation.

Then dispatch called.

“We’ve got a moose in Portland’s Deering area near Fitzpatrick Stadium,” a female operator said in a matter-of-fact tone that lacked sympathy for the sudden detour in Nat’s duties. “According to the report, it nearly ran over a young girl. Warden Peterson checked out of his vehicle an hour ago and is still unavailable, so we need you to cover for him.”

“Ten-four,” Nat responded. “I’m on my way.”

Emergency lights flashing, Nat pulled a U-turn and stomped on the gas. Had someone fishing illegally just caught a lucky break? If so, they had no idea how good their fortune was. And what was it with this time of year? In the three years that Nat had been in the Maine Warden Service, they’d gotten an annual moose call for the Portland area. It always created a dangerous situation with all of the busy streets, and if the moose has brainworm, bad quickly becomes worse because it’s natural fear of humans and vehicles is likely gone. In short, it was only a matter of time before there was an accident or someone was hurt. And if a well-meaning citizen tried to take matters into his own hands—well, Nat had better hurry.

When Nat got into Falmouth on Route 100, he established contact with Portland Police Officer Tim Stevens, who was on the scene. Tim directed Nat to his location at the corner of Granite and Exeter streets. It was a residential neighborhood, filled with closely-clustered two-story homes and apartment buildings, each with a small parcel of grass and shrubbery out front that was cut in half by an aged sidewalk. As Nat parked in front of the police cruiser, he was relieved to see that a crowd hadn’t gathered.

Tim got out of his car first and adjusted the brim of his hat. A tall and slender man with a disproportionate abundance of legs, he pointed to a bull moose grazing in a flower bed at the end of the block. It was small—for a moose, anyway—likely a yearling, judging by the two foot-long points on each side of its antlers. The moose raised its long, nosy snout and gazed back at them, chewing on its floral snack.

“Well,” Nat said aloud to himself, “that’s one less complaint we’ll get for putting it down.” Nat started to climb out of his car, only to get pulled back in by a call. It was Warden Gary Peterson. Dispatch had reached him, and he was on his way, about ten minutes out.

As they were speaking, the moose ventured out of sight down a side street. Tim gestured that he was going to follow it, prompting Nat to nod in agreement and quickly consult his DeLorme map.

“The moose is on the move,” he reported to Gary. “Headed north on Deane Street. Officer Stevens and I are pursuing it on foot.”

“Ten-four.”

Nat climbed out of his car and started toward Deane Street. He only made it a couple of steps before being frozen in place by a man shouting. What was that? His answer came in the form of Tim sprinting around the corner. It was an odd sight to see an officer in full navy-blue uniform running from a scene, his gunbelt bouncing with each stride and his necktie flapping over his shoulder as if it was being held out the window of a speeding car. Tim had also lost his hat, and his golden, military-style flattop was contradicted by the unmistakeable look of fear on his face.

For a moment, Nat was dumbstruck—why was Tim running back? Then the moose came into view. The bull was galloping full tilt with its head down and giant ears pinned back. Tim was giving the pavement everything he had, his arms and stilt-like legs pumping at an impressive clip. But he was no match for a moose that all of a sudden didn’t look so small. It was frightening to behold the bristled hairs on its hump, rippling front-quarter muscles, and fierce gaze fixated on Tim as it charged head-on, leading with its pitchfork antlers. Forty yards behind him at the corner, the bull was gaining ground fast.

In the blink of an eye, it had cut the distance in half.

The closer Tim got to Nat, the wider his eyes looked, and for a good reason—he was about to be trampled.

Nat unholstered his .38 pistol.  

Tim was within steps of the cruiser, but the moose was within a stride of him. He wasn’t looking back; however, the clapping of hooves on pavement must have told him the bull was dead close. There was no way he’d be able to open a door without getting speared.

Nat also didn’t have a clean shot—they were too close together.

Tim did the only thing he could; he dove under the back of his car and disappeared like a shelled turtle.

The moose veered to the left of the vehicle, exposing its broadside to Nat from several feet away.

Nat fired.

The moose staggered for a step but kept on running.  

“Are you okay?” Nat yelled as Tim climbed out from under the car. His face was flushed, and beads of sweat were racing down his temples.

“Yeah,” he said, panting. “Get in.”

Nat climbed into the passenger seat. The car’s engine roared as they went in pursuit, siren blaring and lights flashing.  

“Jeez,” Nat said, “do you think it’s gonna pull over?”

“If it does, the sobriety test is on you.” Tim took a deep breath. “I tell you what, I never thought I’d see this on the job.”

“You must be new,” Nat said. “We get one of these calls every year. It’s the annual running of the moose.”

At the end of Granite Street, the moose crossed Deering Avenue, bringing traffic to a standstill. Tim weaved his cruiser through the stopped cars and caught up to the bull on Bedford Street as it galloped past the University of Southern Maine at a thirty-mile-per-hour clip. There wasn’t much they could do but continue to follow the moose and hope it stopped in a location where it could be safely put down. But the bull had other ideas. At the end of Bedford, it turned onto Forest Avenue, one of Portland’s busiest streets. It was now running against traffic, parting the flow of oncoming vehicles veering out of the way.   

“This ain’t good,” Tim said.

Nat got on the radio to inform Gary they were on the move.

“I’m getting off the highway onto Forest now,” Gary replied.

The moose passed the Oakhurst Dairy plant and soon began to slow down. Its right shoulder was visibly wet with blood, and it was starting to limp. Then the bull stopped in the middle of the road, ears erect like oddly shaped satellite dishes gathering information.

“It’s scared,” Nat said, “and it doesn’t know what to do.”

“I know the feeling,” Tim replied. “What should we do?”

Nat didn’t get the chance to answer. “There it goes,” he said as the moose staggered onto William Street. Likewise, Tim turned onto the side street in time for them to see the moose retreat into a residence’s backyard. It was a white, two-story apartment building and there were no vehicles in the driveway. Fortunately, there also weren’t any bystanders. Nat radioed their location to Gary before following Tim around a large lilac stand on the side of the building. The violet flowers were wilting, but their faint aroma still hung in the air.

The backyard was no more than thirty feet deep, lined with a six-foot, chain-linked fence, and shaded by several maple trees. Aside from a storage shed and a black charcoal grill, the area was free of obstacles.

They found the moose pacing along the fence. Trapped.

Tim wasted no time unholstering his pistol. He’d seen this show before, and he apparently wasn’t going to wait for the second act to begin. Tim started firing at the moose from ten feet away. He unloaded his chamber, the shots so close in succession that he wasn’t even steadying his aim from the recoil.

Panicked by the explosion of gunfire, the moose got up on its hind legs and tried to jump the fence. It was able to get its front legs over, but the bull became hung-up at its shoulders. The fence shook with clinking, rattling noises as the moose clawed at the chains with its hind legs, desperately trying to boost itself over.

“I’ve got it,” Gary said, arriving on the scene. He was off to Nat’s right, and he had a good angle. The wardens are trained to properly dispatch large game, which was evident in Gary’s approach. He crept a little closer and fired one shot into the back of the moose’s head. The bull gave one last kick before going limp.

The drama was over, but the work was just beginning. Removing the moose amongst the now gathering crowd of onlookers and television reporters was no simple task. They were able to push it off the fence, after which the bull’s legs were bound together. A tow truck was brought in to lift the moose up with its cable and place the carcass in the bed of a pickup truck. From there, the moose was transported to the Maine Correctional Center in Windham, where the inmates operated a butcher shop. It always seemed odd and a little unnerving to Nat that felons were permitted access to butcher knives, especially since he had to give up his sidearm when going into the prison. That said, the meat was packaged and given to families in need, and there hadn’t been any incidents that he was aware of, so this was indeed the best way to dispose of the animal.

Nat arrived home shortly after dinner time believing that the day’s events were settled. He sat down at the kitchen table and began plucking at his boot laces.

Then the phone rang.

“Nat,” Bert Lombard, the division supervisor, said in a solemn voice. “We have a problem.”
“Is it a big problem?” Nat replied.

“That’s what we have to find out. A woman called saying there’s a bullet hole in her bedroom window. She lives across from where the moose was shot, so I need you to come check it out with me.”

Nat watched his wife put a plate of reheated spaghetti on the table for him. Bert was more than thirty years his senior, and a no-nonsense boss, so Nat wasn’t about to ask why he had to go instead of Gary. Besides, he had a sinking feeling that he already knew the answer. Gary had fired at the scene, and if his shot had endangered anyone or caused any serious damage, it was his backside on the line.

“I’ll be right there,” Nat said, suddenly nervous for his friend.

He met Bert in Windham, and they drove to Portland together.

“The biologists think the moose had brainworm,” Bert said.

“Oh yeah,” Nat replied, half listening. He was replaying the day’s events in his mind. It was possible that Gary’s shot had gone through the window. He’d fired from close range, and they’d seen where the bullet had entered and exited the moose’s skull.

What would this mean for Gary?

Nat didn’t want to ask that question until they knew for sure. Instead, he addressed the more immediate situation as they approached the woman’s front door: “What are we walking into?”

“Beats me,” Bert said, rubbing his hand on his cheek. “I didn’t talk to her directly, but it seems to reason that she’s not gonna be pleased with a bullet hole in her bedroom window.”

Bert knocked on the door, and after a moment they heard footsteps coming. Nat held his breath as the door was opened, preparing for a tongue lashing.

“Hello,” a blond-haired woman who looked to be in her early forties, said. Her hair was pulled back in a ponytail, and she was dressed in a black business suit, but she was also sporting a welcoming smile. Introducing herself as Vicki, she added, “Thanks for coming.”

Nat’s stomach groaned at the smell of pizza that also met them at the door.

Vicki was joined by a stout man clad in khaki pants and a blue, button-up shirt that was threadbare around the collar. He was in the middle of wiping his ginger mustache with a dinner napkin as she introduced him as her husband, Mark. Together, they explained that they weren’t home during the escapade but heard about it from the neighbors.

“We didn’t think much of it,” Mark started to say.

Vicki completed the thought, “Until we found the hole in our bedroom window.”

“Right,” Bert said, stopping the conversation before it could take a turn for the worse. Perhaps it was his uniform, age, or the hawk-like glare descending his long, slender nose, but he had a knack for commanding respect without being forceful. “May we take a look?”

“Of course.” Vicki led the wardens to a bedroom upstairs and showed them the window. The bullet had left a clean hole in the glass without any spider-web cracking.

Nat followed the trajectory with his eyes. “There,” he said, pointing to the mahogany-stained, hollow-core closet doors. The door on the right had a hole in it.

Bert slid the door open. The closet was filled with hanging clothes, but the top shelf was empty, which made it possible to spot the small indent in the sheetrock. Bert felt along the shelf until he found the bullet.

“Well,” he said, showing the gray bullet to Nat, “it’s not one of ours.”

The wardens only used hollow-point ammunition in their pistols, and this bullet had a rounded nose, which was favored by the Portland Police Department. There was no question about it: the shot had come from Tim’s gun. Nat felt relieved for his fellow warden, but what would this mean for the young officer that nearly had his rump roasted by the moose?

When they got back to the cruiser, after Bert apologized to the homeowners for the trouble and told them the Warden Service would pay for the damage, Nat asked, “Are you going to report this to Portland PD?”

Bert was rubbing his face again as he pondered the question. “No,” he concluded. “This started out as a fish and game incident, so we’ll take care of it.”

“So that’s the end of it?” Nat couldn’t help but scoff in amusement. First, it was the fishermen on Little Sebago Lake that may have caught a lucky break, and now Tim had unwittingly dodged a bullet, too. “All's well that ends well?”

“Yep,” Bert deadpanned. “Until next year’s running of the moose.”

Warden Nat Berry (left) inspects the deceased moose with a Portland Police Officer. Photo credit: <i>Portland Press Herald</i>
Warden Nat Berry (left) inspects the deceased moose with a Portland Police Officer. Photo credit: Portland Press Herald

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