It's Mother's Day, which means it's nearly time for the first moose calves to be born.
Every spring for 17 years, while I was a wildlife biologist in Anchorage, I tried to find a cow moose with newborn calves before Mother's Day so I could lead a newspaper photographer to them. Moose calves are so adorable, I figured the photo would run on the front page where everyone would see it.
I hoped the photograph would serve a dual purpose. It would pay homage to mothers, an expression of esteem with an Alaska theme. But it would also function as a subtle reminder that cow moose were going to be a lot more dangerous for the next few months. Most Alaskans know cow moose can be aggressive in defense of their young.
I never succeeded. Mother's Day is never later than May 14, and few moose calves are born before May 15. Invariably, one of the musk oxen at the Palmer Musk Ox Farm or the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center in Portage would give birth in late April, and the local newspaper would herald the approach of Mother's Day with photos of musk ox calves. It happened again this year, right on schedule.
Moose seldom give birth to one calf. The usual litter size is two. It is good for an animal as large as a moose, a prey species, to give birth to two or more calves. It's good for predators because moose calves are relatively easy to catch and kill, if you can dodge the cow's slashing hooves. It's good for the cow because it's another opportunity to pass on her genes.
Gestating and raising twins can be tough on a cow moose, though. She has to eat more to supply her fetuses with nutrients and produce enough milk for the calves after birth.
It's also much more difficult to keep two calves out of harm's way. Moose calves instinctively follow their mothers; however, it's not unusual with twins for one calf to be a little more independent or pay a little less attention than its sibling. It's likely that those calves are more vulnerable to predators in the wild. They certainly seem more vulnerable in urban areas. Calves are frequently separated from cows by roads or fences. Usually they are reunited but sometimes the cow gets frustrated or frightened and abandons her calf, at least temporarily. This seems to happen more often if a cow has twins, probably because she decides to cut her losses by taking the more attentive calf with her.
Sometimes raising twins to independence leaves a cow so depleted she isn't able to conceive or carry calves to term the following year.
As a wildlife biologist, I understand the pros and cons of raising twins. Nevertheless, I observed, chased, captured and rescued many, many moose calves without giving much thought to the day-to-day difference between raising one versus two offspring.
The difference was brought home to me a couple of years ago when my eldest daughter threw a litter of twins. Caring for a baby is hard work, a full-time job. But raising twins makes raising one baby look easy.
Twins are the ultimate expression of synchronicity. As babies, even fraternal twins usually look a lot alike. In my experience, with little exaggeration, they eat, sleep, laugh, play and poop at the same time. If one cries, the other cries. Of course, that changes as they grow older and start to develop unique personalities and habits.
Some of us are lucky enough to have friends we first met in elementary or middle school. Imagine sharing every waking moment for as far back as you can remember with your doppelganger.
The temptation is great to treat twins as a unit. Before our twins were born, my wife asked one of her middle-school students, who was a twin, for advice. What did he consider the most important idea to convey? The lad got a serious look on his face and related how he had once asked his parents who was older, him or his brother. They admitted that they had lost track, the two boys looked so much alike. He told my wife it was important to remember who was older, even if it was only by a few minutes.
An older pair of twins advised my daughter much the same thing when she was expecting: Don't treat them as if they are one person.
This and that
I'm doing my best to honor that credo but it can be challenging. My batting average for identifying the twins is about .990. Even their mother and older sister mix them up every once in a while. Sometimes it's easier to think of them as This and That.
When M was about 2 years old, my wife instituted a policy of keeping her one night a week. Keeping M overnight is usually a routine, if not exactly tranquil, exercise in grandparenting. Recently, at about the same age, we started keeping the twins one night a month to give their mom a break. As it happens, one night a month with twins is plenty. For us, at least. Two adults nearing their expiration dates can just barely keep up with two supercharged toddlers. It's much easier to interact with them for a few hours, then hand them back to their mom and drive home.
Here's a glimpse of a recent day spent with the twins. During one five-minute period in the midafternoon, one was apprehended teetering halfway up the stairs. One was clambering onto the hearth, within arm's reach of the smoldering wood stove. One was clinging to my legs, saying "up-up-up-up" in a rapid and irresistibly winsome staccato. One was nowhere to be found. One was tossing cooking utensils out of a lower drawer in the kitchen. One was unraveling toilet paper in the bathroom where, the last time I looked, the door was shut.
Honestly, one doesn't have time to think. When we're not playing with them or snatching This or That from the jaws of disaster, both of us are feeding them (four times a day), washing dishes, picking food off the floor under their highchairs, changing diapers, washing clothes, gathering up toys and books, lugging plastic bags stuffed with dirty diapers to the trash, or collapsing in a heap on the sofa when they go down for an hour-long nap.
We don't know how their mother manages to be in more than one place at a time, like an electron in Erwin Schrödinger's model of an electron cloud.
M is an excellent observer, like most kids. She's also a budding poet. Even at 3 years old, she knew one and one could add up to more than two. Watching us changing diapers on the year-old twins, she mused, "When they pee it's like rain, when they poop it's a thunderstorm."
It's not all fun and games. Sibling rivalry exists, even between twins. At this age it manifests itself in subtle shoving and positioning, especially by the older (by four minutes) twin. It's usually an attempt to strong-arm a favorite toy or other mutually desired object, like a paper napkin. When they're 16 they'll be wearing each other's clothes and stealing boyfriends. Heaven help us.
Everybody has one. Some of us are lucky enough to have more than one. There are far more loving stepmothers than wicked ones.
So this is a tribute to loving mothers of all species and circumstances. If bulls were responsible for raising calves, moose would be an endangered species.
Let this also be my perennial reminder that mother moose are most dangerous in the months following Mother's Day. It's wise to treat them like wild animals. Not your kids -- the moose.
Rick Sinnott is a former Alaska Department of Fish and Game wildlife biologist. The views expressed here are the writer's own and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch/Anchorage Daily News. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.