First Person: ‘I count moose in Canada’

When Don Lewis saw two bull moose fighting, it was like watching a 'sumo wrestling match'

My wife once said to a group of friends, “If I want Donny’s attention, I just need to put some antlers on my head.” Everyone laughed – but that’s a pretty accurate scenario. I’m what’s called a wildlife specialist in Pembroke, Ontario, two hours northwest of the Canadian capital, Ottawa. My main job is to record the numbers of moose on my patch so that the provincial government can make sure there’s a sustainable population before any hunting licences are issued.

Because of the distances involved, I do my surveys from the air, as part of a four-person helicopter team. I worked as a forest firefighter before I became a wildlife specialist and we used small aircraft to get around. That experience got me involved with carrying out aerial moose surveys. Counting the moose is done by visual observation – the first time I saw a moose from the air, it was a real “holy cow” moment.

When I tell people I fly around looking at animals for a living, they think that’s really cool. Most people will only catch a glimpse of a moose from the side of a road. They don’t see them hanging around in the forest like I do from the air. They don’t run away like they would if you were near them on the ground.

It’s estimated that there are between 500,000 and 1,000,000 moose in Canada, but no one really knows. I’ve seen 14 so far this year in the area I survey, where they tend to travel in groups of two or three. Moose don’t generally form packs, but they might group up to travel in deep snow.

When I get into the helicopter, I always wonder what I’m going to see. Of course I’m looking out for moose, but I also see coyotes, wild turkeys, otters, grouse and snowshoe hares with their enormous back feet. I often see American bald eagles and hawks gliding alongside.

I’ve seen some amazing sights – like a calf moose being born, and two bull moose fighting each other in a river. That was like a big sumo wrestling match! When I sit around the campfire with my friends, I’m the one telling the stories, like the time I saw two wolves try to take down a deer, or what it’s like looking down on a family of moose moving through the forest.

I’m definitely an outdoors type of guy. I love my fishing, my hunting and my canoeing. My friends call me Bear, because when I was younger they used to say I was built like a bear.

I grew up on an army base, not far from Pembroke – my father was in the military. I was always a very independent kid. From about the age of five, I used to head out with my older brother into the wild, to hunt, fish or just build forts. I still love it, the thrill of going round a river bend, just to discover what’s there. My children are the same – and my youngest daughter could put anybody to shame with her fishing skills.

My wife is from Germany originally and she didn’t even know what a moose was until she came to Canada. She knows a lot more about wildlife than she did before, that’s for sure.

I could never see myself working in a nine-to-five office job, or in a factory where I pushed a button 372 times a day. I would rather be unemployed. I have a friend who is a factory worker who visits me as much as possible because he gets to spend time outside. He thinks I have a great job.

My idea of heaven is at the bottom of my favourite waterfall. It’s an 8km walk with my canoe to get there, but that is my spot. Oh, the fishing is fantastic! I usually take that friend who does that button pushing 372 times a day.

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