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Nobody saw what happened to the Missouri Kid in the early fall of 1976, when, presumably, an older male gave him the boot. Even if he had been under close surveillance, no one would have been able to enter his inner world and determine what motivated him. (Pat Karns' theory is simply a reasonable possibility—not a conclusion, but a logical point of departure from known fact. It is well to keep in mind the dictum about graduate students and all it implies.) Perhaps the old mentor bull was an especially scary one, or the Kid was a particularly sensitive adolescent. Whatever, that fall (maybe) the Kid apparently started legging it southward through central Minnesota. When and where he went is very guessy; this is the only portion of his subsequent expedition that cannot be documented with precision. Perhaps nobody saw him. If someone did, he was unaware that he had met a future celebrity.
It is a fact that a bull moose sporting an impressive rack of antlers showed up in mid-December of 1976 in north-central Iowa. He moved into some woody bottomlands along the upper Des Moines River near the village of Emmetsburg, a mile or so west of Five Island Lake. He settled down there temporarily, to munch river willows and delight local residents. Many came out to look at the odd beast, and some brief, friendly drives were organized to stir him far enough out of the thickets to facilitate photography and up-close admiration. Perhaps because of cartoon exposure, a bull moose, even though it is the largest and most powerful member of the deer family, strikes most people as a harmless and somehow humorous animal rather than the formidable one it can be. Throughout the Missouri Kid's odyssey he has been universally accepted as a charmer rather than a potential danger.
By the time he reached Emmetsburg, the Missouri Kid had made an exceptional trip for moose, but not yet a unique one. "Every so often, one comes down this far," says Lee Gladfelter, an Iowa deer biologist who was to become as much of a moose biologist as that state has. "Most of them hang around for a short time and then disappear. Maybe they work their way back north or get killed on the road."
According to Karns, the latter is often what happens to the few young bulls who wander down into the southern regions of their home state. "They meet with accidents," he says. "So far as we know, none of them has ever succeeded in getting back to traditional moose country. That doesn't mean one or more hasn't, or won't."
The last moose known to have visited Iowa, about five years ago, came to a very bad end. He was poached. "Some gunner just couldn't stand to see something that big and strange go on living," says Gladfelter. "He knew what he was shooting. We gave him a stiff fine, but that didn't help the moose. The one around Emmetsburg didn't have any problems of that sort. He became a local attraction and everybody became very protective about him."
The Missouri Kid remained in the willows near Emmetsburg for about nine months, until the early fall of 1977, when he suddenly abandoned this informal sanctuary and the host of friends he had made while there. "We began to get reports that he was moving down the Des Moines River, quite rapidly in a southeasterly direction," Gladfelter says. "It was as if he had a destination in mind, but who knows if he did, or what it was, or why he started traveling."
And that is the mystery—why? Perhaps the Missouri Kid was harassed by dogs. Maybe the flies became intolerable. Maybe he was driven on by the hormonal tides that wash over bull moose at that time of year. Maybe he started off to find a cow, but rather than going five miles or so, as proper animals of his kind are supposed to do, he kept on searching for the object of his desire for 500 miles.
"Nothing can be proved," says Karns. "We've had some terrible winters up here lately. Maybe he just had enough and decided he was going south."
It should be made clear that Karns is joking. Zoologists and other authorities will make such pleasantries to spice up a conversation, but they would be embarrassed if they were taken seriously—for good reasons. There is absolutely no evidence that a moose can analyze weather, remember one winter from the next and make long-range plans based on this information. But the reverse is also true: there is no evidence a moose cannot do such things. This is why the behavior of other species remains more obscure than the surface of the moon.
"Some animals of the same kind are smarter than others, or dumber," Karns jokes again and, in doing so, touches on another elemental matter—although very lightly, because professional prudence and tradition discourage such a concept being taken with the seriousness it logically deserves.