When Wes Livingston headed to Maine for the first time last month, he didn’t plan on ending up in a video that went viral on the internet.
He did think he might get some pretty good footage on the GoPro camera he wore on his head. And he did know he’d get up close and personal with a lot of moose as he helped net the critters as part of a Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife research project.
But Moose Number 50, a female calf, had other thoughts. More than 130,000 internet views later, Livingston is almost famous, known around the globe as the person who nearly got punched out by a baby moose.
On Monday, I caught up with Livingston via phone.
“I’m in Nevada, chasing sheep,” he said, shortly after our “hellos” were complete. “[I was] in New Mexico for elk, then some more elk and coyotes.”
That’s how Livingston spends his winters nowadays: He flies in helicopters for a New Mexico-based company, AeroTech, with a crew of professionals who help wildlife departments locate and capture animals that they’re going to study.
So yes, some days it’s sheep in Nevada. Others, it’s moose in Maine. And all the time, it’s exciting.
“Net-gunning is one of the best, funnest things you can do in a helicopter,” Livingston said. “And it’s the best team sport I’ve ever played. Everybody on the team has everyone else’s life in their hands.”
He’s not exaggerating: One errant net that is shot into the helicopter’s blades could be catastrophic. One animal that’s approached the wrong way, without backup from another crew member, could turn aggressive and do serious damage.
Livingston jokes that qualifying for the job wasn’t that difficult.
“They had an intelligence test and if you passed it they wouldn’t hire you,” he said.
Speaking more seriously, Livingston explained that he owns a saddle shop in Cody, Wyo., and had been building some gear for companies like AeroTech.
“I grew up rodeoing, knew how to handle animals, so I just got into it,” he said.
Livingston said when the baby moose attacked him, he was on his own in the woods of Maine. After netting the moose and subduing it, the helicopter returned to base to refuel and restock. And after tagging the moose and taking the biological samples he needed, Livingston removed the blindfold and the “hobbles,” which immobilize an animal’s legs, he released Moose Number 50.
Except she didn’t want to be released. Instead, she put up her dukes and began to fight.
“That’s the first time I’ve had a baby moose come after me,” he said. “Cow moose you’re cautious because they’ll come after you. Those are the worst ones. Buffalo and moose.”
After a brief sparring session, the moose stepped back. Then she came forward again. At that point, the moose-netting cowboy decided to play possum.
“When she came back the second time, I decided [to] lay still,” he said. “If you lay still, they just want to know there’s no threat. So I curled up in a little ball and lay still.”
Livingston is 51, and has been netting and capturing wild animals for a few months each winter for the past 15 years. For the bulk of the year he still runs his saddle shop in Cody, and guides hunters and fishermen in the wilderness of Wyoming.
He said he’s comfortable doing the work he does each winter, but realizes that things sometimes go wrong.
“I’ve been very lucky,” he said. “I’ve had coyotes bit me before, a deer poke a hole in me — nothing serious. Just in the leg with a horn. No broken bones.”
Livingston said that relatively speaking, moose are pretty easy to deal with. Sheep? Not so much.
“There’s times when you’re [capturing] sheep when you’re in really steep terrain,” he said. “You’re holding onto a net full of sheep, holding onto a rock with another hand. We carry a lot of ropes and carabiners. I’ve had times when I’ve had to tie myself off [to a tree or other stationary object].”
The key to his safety record (present moose not included): Realizing that it’s important to plan very carefully.
“It’s a thinking game,” he said. “When you’re net-gunning an animal, you’re always thinking, ‘I could put a net on this animal, but where is it gonna go next?’”
And sometimes, it seems, you’ve got to expect a baby moose to reach out and smack you with a left jab.
“Usually, babies just jump up and run away,” Livingston said with a chuckle. “She decided she wanted to be a big girl.”