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Photo by Dr. Alexander Minaev.

I have been a little late in answering the moose question.

So here’s the deal:

This moose is a dairy moose. The “bell” the moose is wearing is a radio tracking device.

This particular moose is indeed an “elk.” However, it is not a Scandinavian elk at all. It is actually a Russian elk from a very interesting experimental farm in the Kostroma Oblast.

Everyone who reads this blog is aware of the experiments with silver foxes at Dmitri Belyaev’s research facility in  Novosibirsk. What isn’t well-known is the Soviets were very interested in domestication.


Well, large areas of the Soviet Union and what is now the Russian Federation are not suitable for many domestic animals. Although the Yakuts have a tough horse that can handle the conditions of the tundra, raising most domestic animals was always a difficult undertaking in much of the country.

In the 1930’s, the country was experiencing lots changes. Rapid industrialization, the collectivization of agriculture, and the isolation from the outside world put lots of pressure on the Soviet economy. This was a time in which there were both famines in the countryside and the development of what resembled a Western industrial middle class in the cities.

All of this happened under an economic system based upon what was called “socialism in one country.” This meant that the Soviet Union had to produce all of its food and materials from domestic sources. The problem is that while the Soviet Union was very rich in raw materials and natural resources, it lacked both capital and infrastructure to utilize them properly.

The fact that large areas of the country are unsuitable for the grazing of most stock meant that domesticating “more appropriate” species was a bit of a national obsession. One must also understand that this country was also attempting to develop entirely on the collectivist model, which mean that all enterprises had to produce to meet “need.” (“Need” is not the same thing as supply and demand in a market economy.)

That’s one reason why the state was so interested in domestication. That’s why the classical experiment on domestication comes from a Soviet geneticist (which is itself ironic because Lysenkoism was the main “scientific methodology” of heredity in the Soviet Union after 1948.)

The original plan was to domesticate the moose in order to create a super cavalry steed that could run hard in the deep snow and live on twigs. The Soviet government started domesticating moose at several game farms.

This idea isn’t quite as fanciful as it might seem. There are historical sources that the Yakut people had something like domesticated moose. When the Swedes coveted a world empire, they also had moose cavalry units– which actually didn’t work!

In the 1930’s, Soviet science believed that it was at the cutting edge of biology and that they could actually produce amazing new species of farm animal. I think some of what inspired this sort of thinking was the existence of many domesticated reindeer in the Soviet Union. Reindeer are wild animals and are totally unlike other farm stock.  About 3,000 years ago, hunter-gatherer peoples throughout northern Eurasia began to develop a pastoral relationship with reindeer, which eventually led to the development of truly domesticated herds of the species. If these people could domesticate this deer to make themselves self-reliant, why couldn’t the Soviet government do this on a much larger scale?

The moose cavalry idea fell apart. Although they did develop some moose that were suitable for riding, the Soviet Union and Finland went to war with each other in 1939, and such experiments were put on hold.

It was decided to turn the moose into a draft animal for logging operations. Using moose to do this work would be far more efficient, for horses required hay to be able to work long hours with loggers. Moose would be better because they could be fed the branches of the trees that were cast aside from the lumber.

The problem was that all moose calves that were ever to be of any use as draft animals had to be bottle-reared. A horse can be trained even if he is never imprinted on humans at an early age. Thus, you actually need people to raise moose calves for your lumber camps, which you don’t actually need if you’re using horses. And bottle-rearing any animal is very labor-intensive, which means that any benefit from using moose instead of horses is soon lost in that part of producing a good “work moose.”

The other thing was that moose are not as skilled at pulling sleds or logs as specifically bred draft horses are. They may be the same size, but the horse has the right sized muscles in all the right places to actually move these objects efficiently. Because the moose can’t pull as well as horses can, the benefits of using them are even more reduced. Further, of all the photos of draft moose I have seen, I have not seen any that included a team of them. Horses can be used in teams to pull objects, which means they can pull more than any single moose in a harness.

So the domesticated moose failed as a cavalry animal and as a draft animal.

It was decided that they would be the next cow of the North. The whole country would be fed on moose meat.

But that didn’t work either. It was very inefficient to raise them to produce them as a meat animal. They were hard to keep together in lots, and they required large areas of forage.

But the Soviets were not done trying.

They decided that the moose’s real strength could be as a dairy animal.

And that is where things got interesting.

Now, after 1948, Lysenkoism took hold in the Soviet Union. Lysenkoism is a bizarre theory of heredity. It is Lamarckian in that it suggests that what an organism experiences in response to environmental factors can be passed onto its offspring.

One of the problems with keeping moose as farm animals is they are not terribly social. They are tolerant of each other for a bit, but they really don’t live in large herds in the way cattle and sheep do.

If moose were going to be dairy animals, they had to learn how to live in herds. Agricultural land was always finite,and keeping them together in small pastures would be an efficient use of the land. It was thought that if they forced cow moose to live in herds that they would produce offspring that would be more gregarious.

Of course, it didn’t work.

So it was decided to start a free-range moose dairy in what is now the Kostroma Oblast. The moose cows were fitted with radio transmitters, and they were allowed to become free-roaming.

I won’t say that these animals are full domesticated, but if the moose knows a person and that person rubs his or her hands with amniotic fluid,  that person can approach the mother moose and her calf.

And as dairy animals, this is important, because the calves must be taken away from their mothers.

Dairy cows have been selectively bred to develop very weak bonds with their calves. It is such that one can remove a calf from the mother soon after birth and cause minimal stress on the mother. (Although she will likely still make a fuss). This selection most likely came by accident. When the calves were taken, the cows that could produce the most milk soon after the separation were those with weakened bonding towards their offspring.

I wonder if the same selective process has happened here.  When the moose cows drop their calves, they are taken from their mothers just a few days after birth. The calves are then bottle-reared, and they imprint very strongly on people.

However, whatever is going on here, the Kostroma Moose Farm is not able to produce milk throughout the year, and the milk is sold to a local sanitarium.

It is hardly a major commercial enterprise, and it is unlikely that it will ever be, for several reasons. The Kostroma Moose Farm Website lays them out:

1. Moose pastures need special protection from poaching and ban of legal hunting, i.e. it is necessary to guard the whole home range from poachers and preserve biotopes producing moose food on its territory. Therefore, the domestic moose range must become a reserve (specially protected nature area) and this area must be equaled at least 36000-40000 ha.

2. Domestic moose will damage agriculture and silviculture areas. (In Russia this is traditionally ignored because fields and forests seem «everybody’s means nobody’s»). Gardens should be fenced.

3. A moose defending from real or imaginary threat or even playing can injure human.

4. Expensive radio tracking equipment is necessary to reveal animals’ position and movements.

5. To avoid discontinuance in feeding which is very dangerous for moose, a moose farm must have its own forest reserve.

6. The Kostroma farm staff including administration, dairywomen, wood loggers, tractor drivers, wildlife guards, etc. agree by order of magnitude to the number of domestic moose. Breeding moose is very expensive.

7. In many countries a release of tame animals is prohibited by law; and their goodwill return for food, milking and giving birth in enclosures may fall under the definition of capture for sustain in captivity.

8. Some animals will be lost because of their emigration.

9. A prohibitive animal number on one moose farm depends on food productivity of the reserved territory, and in Kostroma region is about 50 in total, including 10-15 dairy moose.

So you need a whole bunch of land, a whole bunch of labor, and certain economic and cultural conditions to keep 10-15 dairy moose. And these moose don’t produce milk as often or in such quantities as dairy cattle.

And the animals are not fully domesticated, and because they are deer, the bulls go through a rutting period in which they are pretty aggressive. The cows are not always tolerant of people near their offspring.

And like some dairy bulls, the young male moose that have been bottle-reared can be  quite aggressive towards people.

One worker described one particularly aggressive bull moose:

“We sometimes call him Bin Laden: he is kind to people he knows but has already forced a few people from nearby villages to spend hours on top of trees.”

Yes, I do know that bulls and stallions can be aggressive animals, but bulls and stallions can be safely contained. If the only humane way to keep moose is to let them be free range, then these dairy moose bulls are going to be a major hazard.

In the end, the idea of domesticated moose is one that sounded good on paper, but when the actual economic, cultural, and ecological reality set in, it now seems a bit like a failure to me.

However, these experiments do tell us a lot about the domestication process, even if their practical utility is somewhat questionable. The distortions that existed under Soviet-style socialism at least led to some scientific understanding about what it takes to domesticate a species and why some animals are unsuited for the domestic lifestyle.

And in that respect, the Kostroma Moose Farm and the whole attempt to create a super taiga steed or bullock does have some merit.

But I don’t see moose dairies popping up all over the world any time soon.

See the Kostroma Moose Farm.

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Elg means elk.

Elk doesn’t mean the large species of Cervus we have in North America that we have unfortunately given that name.

Elk means moose.

Hund does not mean hound.

Hund means dog.

This is the Grå breed of  Norwegian elkhound. I don’t think I have to tell you what that means. There is also a Sort (“black”) breed of  Norwegian elkhound, but they are uncommon in this country.

So really, this breed’s name is actually “the gray Norwegian moose dog.”

And as you can see from this video, moose hunting with a dog can be a little bit hazardous.

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