City moose in Anchorage, Alaska

This is Sara Komarnisky, PhD student at UBC, currently in Anchorage doing fieldwork with Mexican migrants and immigrants here. One thing about life in Anchorage that is funny and fits very much with clichés about Alaska are all of the MOOSE!

Just like on TV

There are moose all over the city, all year, but they are especially noticeable in the fall and winter. They eat Halloween pumpkins and nibble on tree branches in front yards, and I have been prevented from leaving my house twice already due to a moose in the front yard! Moose amble down city streets and park paths, they sleep in deep snowbanks in front yards, and some neighborhoods see the same moose make its rounds day after day. About once a week, an email is sent to my entire university department informing us that there is a moose in the parking lot. One even went inside a local hospital using the automatic doors!! Recently, the Alaska Department of Fish and Game gave permission to a group of conservationists called the Alaska Moose Federation to start feeding the moose, in an attempt to keep them off of roads and sidewalks and prevent collisions and confrontations between moose and people.

My neighbourhood moose

Moose are managed by the state of Alaska for “abundance” – that means it’s a state goal to make sure there are lots of moose for hunting and ultimately, for food. Actually, I went to a talk a while ago about bear management in Alaska, and how recently hunting regulations on predators like bears have become more relaxed in order to increase numbers of moose. The idea is that bears prey on baby moose, and limiting the number of bears by increased hunting should lead to higher numbers of moose for local hunters.

Anyway, all of the moose and the politics around it got me thinking about life in a northern city and of human-animal relations. Urban experience always includes wildlife – but usually that means squirrels, pigeons, maybe rats or raccoons. Not moose. Also, I am starting to see how saving the moose is tied up with state plans to maintain high populations of moose for people to hunt and to eat. Finally, moose are a stereotypical but important symbol of life here – one that is taken up by my research participants and that travels with them to Mexico. I wonder what everyone thinks about this. Are there similar large urban animals in other northern cities?

Reindeer, Herders and War

In the study of many pastoralist societies, the military dimensions of animal husbandry have played an important role. Indeed, if we think for example about the horse among Central Asian nomads, and it’s historical importance, e.g. for the expansion of Chingis Khan’s Empire, it is hard to overestimate the military significance of pastoral animals.

"Arctic Tank", reindeer herders in the Soviet Army. Note the Nenets way of harnessing them

When we look northwards, however, it is not obvious in the first place, and definitely we could not say that military use of animals was among the priorities for reindeer herders. Nonetheless, if we dig a little bit further, we find that reindeer have been extensively used by states during wars in the North in the early 20th century.

During the war with Russia, Finland used Sami reindeer herders with their reindeer successfully. The intimate knowledge among both humans and animals of the terrain, the quietness of movement, and the extremely high off-road capability proved to be  decisive advantages.

The Soviet army also came up with a ‘reindeer army’, and the museum in Lovozero (Murmansk Region, Russia), has a whole nice section of their exhibit on it, with names of herders who fought there, photographs, statistics and other information. The reindeer 14th and 19th  divisions of the Soviet Army had sections with reindeer that were called ‘Arctic Tank’ colloquially, at the Karelian front.

One source says that the Nenets reindeer divisions took out more than 10 000 injured from the forest, and 150 figther airplanes. This shows that they were used a lot just behind the front for supply chain operations.

Now the first monument for the heroic work of such herders in war was inaugurated in Naryan-Mar,European Nenets Okrug. Arctic Centre anthropologist Stephan Dudeck was there at the ceremony during his ORHELIA fieldwork and wrote a great blog entry on this. Worth reading!