It happened in the Cataloochee Valley of Great Smoky Mountains National Park more than 2 years ago. Photographer James York was photographing elk from a distance when one young bull decided to come close—very close. York tried to act passively and put his head down and curled forward to protect himself from the animal’s antlers.
But instead of losing interest, the bull started to butt heads with him. “I think that while protecting myself with my head down, having my head down was a signal that I was rutting with him,” York told photographer and film maker Vince Camiolo, who posted the video on Youtube.
York managed to snap some pictures of the elk and after several minutes a Rangers’ car picked him up.
“My first thoughts were “wow, he’s getting pretty damn close here.” But I’ve been up close before without incident. I hoped being still and passive would see him pass on. When he lowered his antlers to me, I wanted to keep my vitals protected and my head down. I felt that standing up would provoke him more and leave me more vulnerable to goring,” York said.
When the bull started lunging at him, York said he got scared and agitated. He was glad to see the Rangers come.
The video went viral and was picked up by multiple media outlets.
Soon after, however, a follow-up story surfaced—the elk was put down by the Rangers. It was the first time they had had to do this—the animal was being repeatedly aggressive.
The reason? People were feeding the elk. It had gotten used to people feeding it, and therefore associated people with food. The rangers were not able to train it to be afraid of people anymore.
“I am deeply saddened by the fate of the elk. It has certainly pulled a black cloud over this whirlwind “viral video” experience,” York told Camiolo. “I love and respect animals and that’s why I photograph them and don’t hunt them. I am deeply hurt by the loss of such a beautiful creature that in its own way bonded with me. I looked forward to watching him grow to a mature bull as the years passed.”
It may be hard to resist an urge to feed a wild animal. After all, the animal seems to like it and we may covet the up-close look and photo opportunity. This case may be a reminder there could be serious consequences for such behavior.