Smart, curious, still learning to maneuver his antlers: Meet the Alaska moose at Cheyenne Mountain Zoo | Cheyenne Mountain Zoo

Meet Atka, the Alaskan moose at Cheyenne Mountain Zoo. (Video by Skyler Ballard)

It’s a chilly, snowy December morning, but Atka is living his best life.

The Alaska moose stops to lick some snow in Rocky Mountain Wild at Cheyenne Mountain Zoo, before wandering over to check out the humans standing on the bridge ogling his 2-year-old, 756-pound massiveness. But oops, those dang antlers, caught again on part of his exhibit of him. These are only his second set of antlers from him and they’re lopsided — one side’s a little longer than the other because he accidentally broke half off when he ran into something.

“He’s still new at learning how to navigate with them,” said Erika Furnes, senior keeper in Rocky Mountain Wild and Atka’s primary trainer.

The big guy disentangles himself and ambles over to his training panel, hopefully Furnes has his favorite snack of all time—Wasa crackers.

“He could probably eat a bucket and a half,” Furnes said.

Playful, mischievous, iron-bellied: Meet the striped skunks at Cheyenne Mountain Zoo

What’s Atka’s backstory?

Grab a tissue, it’s a sad one. Outside Anchorage, Alaska, a hiker and Atka’s mother came into contact. She was wildly protective of her newborn and to save herself, the hiker killed her. But he stayed with the baby moose until the wildlife department retrieved him and took him to The Alaska Zoo in Anchorage. After living there for a bit, Atka was transported via FedEx plane to Colorado. He was 8 weeks old and 90 pounds when he arrived in the Springs in July 2020.

Will he get bigger?

Possibly. Alaska moose can grow to be almost 1,400 pounds, which means he could double in size. He might be done growing around 6 or 7 years old.

What’s the big guy like?

Intelligent, great at learning training behaviors, super curious about humans. He’s known to pick people out of the crowd and follow them around the exhibit. And he’s observant. If keepers change anything in his environment, he’s keen to check it out immediately. And he’s also a bit mercurial about his food from him. He always loves a Wasa cracker and elm, cottonwood and aspen branches, but sometimes he loves a banana and sometimes he does not. He usually likes apples and melons, such as watermelon, but the jury’s continually changing on blueberries.

Is he the first moose at Cheyenne Mountain Zoo?

No. The zoo was also home to Tahoma, a Canada moose who died of old age in 2020. He was just shy of 13 and the oldest moose in human care in the US at the time. He also was the first moose in human care to do volunteer hoof care at a zoo, said Rachel Wright, the zoo’s public relations and social media manager. A collection of Tahoma’s impressive antlers adorn the side of a building in Atka’s exhibit.

It’s highly unusual for a zoo to have a moose, Wright said, as most don’t have the space for such a large animal. There’s also no Species Survival Plan Program by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums for Alaska moose, as they’re not threatened or endangered. Cheyenne Mountain Zoo is known as the moose zoo around the US due to its rare family member, and they offer animal encounters with Atka, with the potential of feeding him a snack. It’s all dependent, of course, on his appetite from him.

“You can always feed a giraffe a cracker,” Wright said, “but to feed a moose a cracker is a once in a lifetime opportunity.”

Let’s talk more about those antlers.

Boy moose shed and grow a pair every year. Atka shed his first pair in April, when most younger moose lose their antlers. Older male moose can lose them around December or January. As the antlers grow, they have a lot of vessels going to them and are a soft material, which is why they’re easily broken. Antler growth correlates to testosterone levels, and the antlers are all about helping boy moose prove their worth to the ladies come mating season. They grow back bigger every year of the moose’s life until they reach a peak.

Will the zoo try to find Atka a lady?

No. Male moose are solitary creatures in the wild, so the zoo plans to mimic their lifestyle. And since Alaska moose don’t have a Species Survival Plan Program from AZA, there are no plans to find another moose.