In late September 1980, Maine’s annual moose hunt resumed for the first time in 54 years, but not without controversy. The six-day hunt was preceded by several legislative hearings in Augusta in 1979. In packed hearing rooms, the Legislature entertained passionate testimonials from anti-hunters, hunters, business owners, state senators and representatives. Arguments for and against the moose hunt was great live theater, unscripted and unrehearsed.

Legendary Maine wildlife biologist Doc Blanchard administered the state’s busiest moose check station in Greenville in 1980. He supervised a team of 10 biologists collecting biological data from dead moose. Blanchard’s other task was officiating disputes between hunters and anti-hunters, some of which were filmed by reporters from CBS Evening News with Walter Cronkite.

In 1988, I replaced Doc Blanchard as regional wildlife biologist in Greenville. By then, controversy surrounding the hunt had dissipated. Opponents of the moose hunt boycotted the check station, choosing instead to air their grievances in newspaper op-ed columns and in front of local television news cameras. But general interest in the hunt had not waned. Crowd control — several hundred moose gawkers and a half dozen competing taxidermists — was my biggest challenge. The station’s parking lot was lined with vendors selling hotdogs, popcorn, coffee and donuts. Collecting biological data from dead moose in a carnival-like atmosphere was surreal. A growing crowd, dressed in hunter orange, parted for each truck and then quickly chased it into an airplane hangar where I operated an electric hoist weight scale. Governor McKernan’s office had even sent a representative, a woman in a red dress and high heels, to observe the proceedings.

This was the setting when on my first morning on the job, a pickup truck carrying an impressive bull moose rolled into the hangar. As curious on-lookers gathered, the electric hoist groaned and shivered to lift the big bull. Finally free from the truck’s bed, the moose hung and twisted in the air, held up by heavy chains wrapped around the base of its stout antlers. Anticipation hung silently in the air, too. I climbed a ladder to read the scale. It seemed an eternity before the arrow settled. I yelled out the weight in the cavernous metal building: 1,158 pounds. People in the crowd turned to each other and repeated the weight in unison.

But the moose’s heft wasn’t the most exciting part. As I lowered him back into the truck, his spleen rolled out of his chest cavity and splattered on the cement floor. McKernan’s representative jumped back in horror. Everyone laughed, but not at her. A local basset hound named Watson had run between her legs, grabbed the spleen and dragged it out of the building as fast as his short legs allowed. He became an instant crowd favorite and the unofficial mascot of the 1988 moose season.

I quickly learned to expect the unexpected. Day 2 produced another surprise: Cooked moose. A Subaru Brat — a tiny vehicle that’s half car and half truck — carrying an enormous bull moose had failed to climb a hill on the east side of Moosehead Lake. The moose’s weight exceeded the manufacturer’s recommended weight limit, which caused the Subaru to overheat. The vehicle stalled, caught fire, and was engulfed in a ball of flames within minutes. By the time fire trucks arrived from Greenville, vehicle and moose were reduced to a black smoldering mass. A game warden drove me to the Greenville Texaco Station were the Subaru had been delivered on a flatbed truck. He asked, “Are you going to tag crispy moose?” And indeed, I placed a metal tag around the charred Achilles tendon and extracted a lower incisor from what was left of the head with a screwdriver and buck knife. (Removing a tooth for aging is standard moose check station practice. If I had collected a dollar each time someone said, “I’m sure glad you’re not my dentist,” I could have retired many years earlier.)

Fellow biologist Sandy Ritchie of Smithfield worked the Jackman moose check station when a hunter stopped to register a cow moose in a red Subaru subcompact. According to Ritchie, “The animal’s head was nestled in the woman passenger’s lap and its legs were sticking out the back of the hatchback.”

By the fifth day of the 1988 moose season, 93 percent of the 1,000 permit holders were home enjoying the fruits of a successful Maine moose hunt. Only a handful of dead moose trickled into the check station after that. One sorry hunter arrived at the Greenville check station on the last day of the hunt with a cow moose crammed into the back of his Ford Explorer. He’d shot the cow late the previous day several hundred yards from a logging road. He hired a logger with a skidder to stuff the cow into the folded backseat of the Explorer. Exhausted from gutting and loading the moose, the hunter slept in his vehicle that night with a dead animal in back.

By the time he arrived in Greenville the following morning, rigor mortis had taken hold of the moose. When he backed into the hangar, the face of the cow moose was smashed against the blood-smeared rear window. Moose legs were bent in all sorts of unnatural angles. By then my team of biologists had tagged 250 dead moose and we had become a tad jaded. We quickly dubbed this one “canned moose,” because no body parts moved when the doors were opened. The floor of the vehicle, however, was alive with movement. As the moose cooled during the night, hundreds of ticks had dropped off the carcass. The bedraggled hunter, young and inexperienced, was oblivious to the ticks crawling all over him. “Will you weigh the moose for me?” he asked. I told him I couldn’t and advised him to deliver the moose to a butcher shop as soon as possible before the meat spoiled.

Watson’s droopy and expectant eyes stared at me in disbelief. I swear he was disappointed that I sent the hunter home without weighing that cow moose. “Watson,” I said, “don’t give me that look. You’ve had an exciting moose season and so have I.”

Waterville native Ron Joseph is a retired Maine wildlife biologist.

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