scorecardresearch Skip to main content
globe magazine

Pete the Moose: What really happened

Abandoned as a baby in Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom, he was saved, doomed to die, then saved again. The feud he spawned reveals a lot about our unpredictable, twisted relationship with the wild.

David Lawrence and Pete the Moose, shown here in 2009, developed a bond after Lawrence took the orphaned animal in.Jerry Swope/JERRY SWOPE

DAVID LAWRENCE had a way with moose. He had already raised two abandoned babies into tame giants when he got a phone call in the spring of 2008. A man found a moose calf in the woods behind his central Vermont house, its mother scared off days before by a dog. Lawrence knew he wasn’t supposed to take it. It’s illegal to keep wild animals in Vermont. A state game warden had told the man to leave the creature alone and let nature take its course. But for Lawrence it was a simple choice: Do you take care of a defenseless baby animal or not? OK, he said. Bring the moose.

That’s how Pete the Moose entered the world of humans. It would be a topsy-turvy place, filled with raucous debate about what to do with a wild animal that had come too close to people. It would feature an entire cast of Vermont characters, from one of the state’s biggest dairymen to the governor to a mountain man. Depending on who you asked, the moose was a harmless orphan, a disease vector, a political pawn, a business opportunity, a Facebook celebrity, or a buddy. In the end, it became a story more about people than the moose — a four-legged Rorschach test of how we view our relationship with the wild.



WHEN LITTLE PETE stepped from a horse trailer into the Big Rack Ridge for-profit hunting preserve, he walked into the middle of a years-long feud. Lawrence volunteered at the 700-acre preserve near the village of Irasburg. The owner, businessman Doug Nelson, had already let two other orphaned moose live there.

Starting with a family farm, Nelson had built an agricultural empire in Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom. With 6,000 cows, he and his sons own one of the state’s biggest herds. In the early 1990s, he imported elk to breed them and sell the antlers to Asia, where they are used in traditional medicine. When the export market dried up for him in the late 1990s, Nelson opened a restaurant with elk steak on the menu and a giant arch of elk antlers outside. He also fenced in a forested hillside near one of his farms, called it Big Rack Ridge, and started selling guided elk hunts for $1,000 to $12,500.


The fight with state hunting and wildlife officials began almost immediately. Vermont regulators weren’t sure what to do with Nelson’s operation, but they knew they didn’t like it. “Canned hunts,” as critics call them, offend some hunters because the animals have little chance of escaping. The state also warned that Nelson had effectively taken public property, because native white-tail deer and moose lived at Big Rack Ridge — trapped when the fence was installed or by jumping inside it for the easy food.

The biggest fear was chronic wasting disease. The illness spreads from one animal to another and is incurable and almost always fatal. It’s been found in 19 states but hasn’t been documented in New England. Operations like Big Rack Ridge are considered likely culprits for spreading the disease in at least three states. Yet wildlife officials had little leverage. State regulations were silent on hunting preserves. And Nelson wasn’t budging. He reasoned the deer and moose were his now. He dismissed the warnings of chronic wasting disease as hysteria. The elk killed there were tested, and the disease had never been found, he said. He showed little interest in the niceties of hunting ethics. “It was absolutely no concern of mine how they hunted,” he says now. “I didn’t care if they went up in their truck and put the barrel to their head.”


Nelson has a bit of the pugilist about him. Short and stocky, he walks with his shoulders tensed. He speaks in declarative, matter-of-fact statements. At 70, he still rises at 3 most mornings, hefting huge buckets of corn into a pickup to feed the elk and driving a circuit of his farms. Nelson and the state sparred for a decade, but neither could score a knockout. Meanwhile, Nelson sold as many as 100 hunts a year.

By 2009, the Vermont Fish and Wildlife Department seemed to have him against the ropes. New state rules meant the deer and moose had to go by the end of the year. But they couldn’t be set free, because they might be diseased. So Nelson had to find a new home for them, kill them, or let the state do it. That included Pete.


STATE OFFICIALS and the public learned of Pete in July 2009 in an article in the The Barre-Montpelier Times Argus. By then, the moose was a 1-year-old 500-pound giant, tame as a Labrador retriever. The animal lumbered along beside David Lawrence, taking treats like apples or a jelly doughnut from his hand. Lawrence hoped the publicity would save the deer and moose. He had no idea.


Pete and Lawrence soon became Internet celebrities. Elizabeth White, a woman from a nearby town who works for a large coffee roaster, made a video of Lawrence and put it on YouTube. The video, which notched thousands of hits, sparked a “Save Pete the Moose” Facebook page. Someone designed T-shirts with catchy slogans like “Give Pete a Chance.” A musician wrote a protest anthem, “For Pete’s Sake.” White spent nights and weekends answering Facebook messages, planning rallies, handing out postcards to the governor, and talking strategy. A New York Times article and an ABC News story attracted national attention. Vermont’s Republican governor, Jim Douglas, promised to try to save Pete.

What was it about this moose that provoked such a response? Hunters had been shooting elk at Big Rack Ridge for years with no cry of “Save the elk.” What about the deer and moose brought down each year during hunting season?

Never underestimate the power of a story. For libertarians, there were bureaucrats meddling in a private affair. For animal lovers, there was the orphaned moose that escaped death. “I think he was sort of the underdog story,” says White. If you’re an animal, it doesn’t hurt to have a name, either. The unlikely tandem of Pete and Lawrence really fueled the campaign, says Scott Wheeler, a former Republican state lawmaker who publishes the Northland Journal, a magazine of northern Vermont history and current affairs. “He’s Vermont’s version of Grizzly Adams,” says Wheeler, recalling the 1970s television show about a mountain man who befriends a bear. “If it had just been Pete the Moose, this story would not have captured the attention it did.”


Lawrence looks the part. Seventy-six years old, with a bushy white beard and long white hair, he resembles a skinny, weathered Santa Claus. Raised in the mountains outside little Albany, Vermont, as a younger man he killed just about anything in the woods. But as he got older, he started spending more time caring for animals than shooting them. Lawrence doted on Pete, driving the 10 miles to Big Rack Ridge up to four times a day. When the moose was a baby, he fed it from a giant bottle. When it got older, he hauled in brush to supplement his diet of corn and hay. “I wish that you people that see this could understand what it’s like to save an animal and love him like I do and want no harm to come to him,” Lawrence said in the first YouTube video.

Doug Nelson at times echoed the protesters, warning the state plan would be a massacre. Yet he also took steps to sell deer hunts. It’s an apparent contradiction that Nelson explains by saying the state wanted indiscriminate killing of animals no matter their age, even fawns. While some might dismiss it as hypocrisy, it’s consistent with a farmer ethos, says Wheeler, who backed Nelson. “He’s a farmer. Being a farmer, death is part of life. But most farmers truly love their animals,” he says. Nelson was also savvy enough to see a tactical advantage.

For Fish and Wildlife, it was a public relations disaster. They had no cute, furry mascot and no story that tapped into the public’s love for animal buddy stories. “Our friend Walt Disney didn’t do us any favors,” says Wayne Laroche, head of the department from 2003 to 2011 and Nelson’s most public nemesis. Consider the difficulty of explaining why Pete should have been left to die as a baby. Once you start feeding a wild animal, it will become drawn to humans. That invites all kinds of trouble, especially with big animals. People also shouldn’t think it’s open season on turning wildlife into private pets, explains Patrick Berry, the current state Fish and Wildlife commissioner. While some people cheered Lawrence as a hero, Berry has a different word for him: lawbreaker.

Pete, for the agency, was a smoke screen that obscured a bigger, more unsavory issue. “This wasn’t about someone just wanting to have one particular moose that they loved,” Laroche says. “This was about wanting to have all the other animals and profit from them.” In the calculus of Fish and Wildlife, one moose just wasn’t part of the equation. Wildlife managers, like epidemiologists, think in terms of herds rather than single animals. When they looked at a pen full of elk, deer, and moose, they saw a whole lot of potential disease vectors on hooves that could escape into the wild. It’s not all that different from how ranchers might kill a diseased animal to protect their herd. But in this case, Pete didn’t pose a risk to Nelson’s operation; it looked as if he might save it.


WHEN THE VERMONT LEGISLATURE convened in early 2010, a secret deal emerged that would give Nelson most of what he wanted. Only a handful of legislators, the governor’s office, and the state agriculture department knew of it. Nelson would get to keep the deer and moose. Fish and Wildlife would lose authority over Big Rack Ridge. The language was quietly inserted into a must-pass budget bill at the last minute and became law. The Fish and Wildlife Department was blindsided. Fish and Wildlife board members, appointed to craft policy, were seething. “There is no way that this can be sold to us,” board chairman Brian Ames told a governor’s representative at a meeting after the deal went public. “I really feel it is a political backdoor deal.” For Pete’s advocates, it was a startling eleventh-hour rescue. But it roused the state’s potent hunting groups and environmentalists. They mounted a campaign against a deal privatizing native wildlife.

When the Legislature reconvened in 2011, the tide had turned. With the support of a new governor, Democrat Peter Shumlin, the Legislature reversed itself. A new law declared the moose and deer were public. Nelson would have to manage the elk preserve more strictly to limit the disease risk. Shumlin, showing a politician’s sense for theater, “pardoned” Pete the Moose. For Pete’s supporters, it was bittersweet. While Pete was spared, the remaining deer and moose would be killed. Nelson got some consolation. He could charge hunters to shoot the deer.

According to the Hollywood script, Pete should have lived a quiet life in Lawrence’s company. But the moose developed a hoof problem brought on by his unnatural corn-based diet. In September, Nelson and Lawrence found Pete in the woods, gave him a tranquilizer, and repaired his hooves. Lawrence was the last person to leave Big Rack Ridge that day and says Pete was still sedated and lying in the woods when he took off. It was the last time anyone saw Pete alive.

Pete didn’t appear when Lawrence came to feed the animal two days later, and Lawrence grew concerned. A Fish and Wildlife biologist, alerted to the rumors, went to the preserve, says Berry. Someone there identified a nearby moose as Pete. The biologist snapped a photo of the animal, and the department gave it out, along with assurances Pete was alive. But Pete’s ardent fans could see it was an impostor. The Save Pete Facebook page lit up with accusations that the state was covering up Pete’s death. Nelson soon admitted Pete was dead. Nelson now says they hoped to save another moose, named Davey, by having it stand in for Pete. By the time the truth came out in mid-October, all that remained was a decayed carcass. There wasn’t enough left for a necropsy to determine what killed Pete.


FOR A PLACE that generated so much noise, Big Rack Ridge was quiet as dawn faded into a February morning. A crow’s call was the only sign of wildlife when Nelson stepped from his Ford pickup to open the preserve’s wire-mesh gate. Herds of deer no longer gathered for breakfast. Hunters killed many of them over the winter, and federal animal control agents shot the rest, around 110 in all, plus two moose.

Nelson steered up a small rise on a snow-covered track, and there were the remaining moose. Three females and a male stood near a pile of hay, eyeing the truck. As Nelson stepped onto the snow, the animals edged back a few steps. “Come on, girls,” he called to them. “Come on, beautiful.” He poured a bucket of corn into a plastic trough. The animals gingerly walked toward the food, keeping out of arm’s reach. The moose can stay until September 2014.

Elk hunting ended at the start of February. Nelson said he plans to reopen this fall. But first he needs to get all the elk tagged, a key step to monitor for diseases. If he doesn’t, Berry, the Fish and Wildlife commissioner, says he won’t let hunting resume.

The day Pete’s death became public, Lawrence quit his volunteer work at Big Rack Ridge, and he hasn’t spoken with Nelson since. But Lawrence has constant reminders of the animal he called a friend. A sticker with a moose image is mounted on his pickup’s back window. A photo of Pete is attached to the refrigerator. He says he’s writing a book about the experience. He still gets calls from people asking whether he will take a moose. He turns them all down. “It isn’t worth it,” he says. “It’s too much pain.”

Warren Cornwall is a freelance journalist in Burlington, Vermont. Send comments to