Atka, Alaska Moose, Leans on Trusting Relationships With Keepers During Post-Surgery Recovery

April 27, 2023

Last month, 2-year-old Alaska moose, Atka, had surgery to remove a toe with progressive bone degradation from his front left foot. Since then, the ‘Prince of Rocky Mountain Wild,’ as he’s called by his keepers, has been leaning on the trusting relationship he has with his care team to continue his recovery.

“We’ve been really impressed with Atka,” said Erika Furnes, Atka’s primary trainer and senior keeper in Rocky Mountain Wild. “When an animal needs to go through something major like this, there’s always a chance you could lose some of the trust you have built with them. We have to ask a lot of Atka right now, to give him the best possible care, and he’s doing a really great job.”

Since his surgery on Feb. 28, 2023, Atka has been voluntarily participating in his recovery, which started with 13 days of barn rest following his surgery. On April 10, Atka’s care team decided his wound was looking good enough for the big guy to go outside.

“The plan was always to listen to what Atka was telling us during his recovery, and to balance what’s best for him medically with what’s best for him as a moose,” said Furnes. “After nearly two weeks, he was ready to stretch his legs in the sunshine. By respecting his space and responding to his needs, we can maintain his trust, which allows us to provide better care for him long-term.”

Atka’s surgical sutures have come loose, which is not uncommon in this procedure when performed in domestic hoof stock like cows or goats, but because he voluntarily participates in hoof care, CMZoo’s veterinary team and Atka’s surgeon have been able to monitor his foot closely, and are happy and comfortable with how it is progressing. Atka also actively participates in training to receive antibiotic injections and oral medication for any discomfort he might be experiencing.

“We want to give him the rest, pain medications and antibiotics he needs while limiting the number of times he has to go under anesthesia,” said Furnes. “So far, we haven’t needed to anesthetize him since his surgery. I’ve been so proud of him. He’s still coming right over to his training panel and presenting his hoof on the block so we can get a close look at his surgical site. He takes oral medications in an apple in the morning, and so far, he has let us give him all necessary injections of long-lasting antibiotic.”

Atka and his care team have worked to build that relationship through positive reinforcement husbandry training. Moose are rare in zoos, and are almost unheard of south of Colorado. Because they’re so rare in human care, there aren’t as many training protocols, so CMZoo has helped blaze the trail for moose training everywhere.

“When you go through a tough chapter like this with an animal, it reminds you of how important the relationship-building and training you’ve done in the past is,” said Furnes. “Ongoing maintenance training is always important, but when an animal’s recovery depends on it getting certain care, the relationship of trust and the language you have built together make the process less stressful and more successful for everyone – animals and humans.”

Atka is still healing and learning how to navigate on seven toes, instead of eight. Moose feet normally each have two toes that move independently to help the long-legged mountain mammals balance on rocky terrain. It is likely Atka will probably walk with an unusual gait for the rest of his life, since this necessary surgery has changed the structure of his foot – which is one-quarter of his foundation.

Animals are resilient, and Atka is adapting to his new foot. Keepers say that over the last four weeks of recovery, Atka has spent time lying down in comfy sand and shavings piles they’ve provided for him in his yard. He has been trotting, rubbing against trees, walking to his fence line to greet guests, enjoying fresh browse and wading in his pond. Guests might see Atka stumbling when he makes tight turns, favoring his one-toed foot, or curling it to rest it while he stands.

Atka has access to his barn and his yard for now, so visitors can stop by to wish him well in Rocky Mountain Wild. Atka’s team will continue to monitor him closely and make any adjustments to his medications, treatments or access to physical activity, with Atka’s best interests in mind.

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