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Celebrity elk Buttons shows she’s not cut out for wilderness, so she’s moving to the zoo

UPDATED: Fri., March 15, 2019

Buttons the elk rests in a Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife pen Friday near Selah, Wash., before being transported to the Woodland Park Zoo in Seattle. (Amanda Ray / Yakima Herald-Republic)
Buttons the elk rests in a Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife pen Friday near Selah, Wash., before being transported to the Woodland Park Zoo in Seattle. (Amanda Ray / Yakima Herald-Republic)
Yakima-Herald Republic

The strange, captivating story of Buttons the elk might finally have a happy ending.

Friday morning, Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife staff helped carefully guide the beloved cow from a pen into a horse trailer bound for Woodland Park Zoo in Seattle, where Buttons is expected to spend the rest of her life at the Northern Trail exhibit. Buttons will join two other cows and a bull, plus two additional cows expected to arrive from Eatonville’s Northwest Trek Wildlife Park in the near future.

“This is going to give her more of an opportunity to be an ambassador for her species and a lot more people are going to know about her and know why she’s here and what went wrong and why she had to be moved,” Woodland Park Zoo animal care manager Deanna Sharpe said. “Hopefully that will help educate people so that it doesn’t happen again.”

Buttons has been something of a celebrity on State Route 10 between Ellensburg and Cle Elum since at least 2015. Residents there, thinking she was orphaned, began feeding and caring for her. She received national attention when she wandered into a wildfire command post in July 2016 and nuzzled the firefighters. Photos of the encounter went viral on social media. She was a regular visitor to the Chimpanzee Sanctuary Northwest near Cle Elum.

While Buttons was known for her friendliness with humans, she also caused problems by damaging property, harassing pets, and occasionally acting aggressively toward people, according to a release put out by the department. It’s illegal to feed wildlife in Washington state.

Moving Buttons

After Buttons was found with a garden hose around her neck, wildlife officials decided in early February to move her to a winter elk feeding site on the Wenas Wildlife Area, northwest of Wenas Lake, that’s closed to the public. Scott McCorquodale, the wildlife department’s regional wildlife program manager, said they hoped to reintroduce Buttons to the wild, but it was always a long shot for the most people-friendly elk he’s ever seen.

“She just has not been able to venture out where the elk are,” McCorquodale said. “She just sort of stays around the barn or stands over on the fenceline and stares at that house.”

Buttons even escaped once and made her way to the house about a half mile away in 15 minutes, underscoring her preference for humans rather than her fellow elk.

Wildlife Officer Cody Watts said people were cited for climbing over the elk fence to go into the barn and feed Buttons.

When it became clear Buttons wouldn’t join the herd, McCorquodale said staff reached out to 10 different entities, including Northwest Trek, the Portland Zoo and two Washington State professors who care for wild animals. The Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife denied a transfer to Wildlife Safari in Winston, Ore., due to disease concerns, but the recent deaths of two older elk at Woodland Park Zoo created an opening.

Zoo curator Jenny Pramuk said they made a special exception to provide a home for Buttons, since most of their animals come from other zoos and have spent their entire lives in captivity. Once tests for tuberculosis and other pathogens showed Buttons to be healthy, the zoo agreed to welcome Buttons to an environment where human contact will be minimal.

“They get a little human interaction but we do not go in with them,” Pramuk said. “So we don’t go in and pet them or treat them the way Buttons has been treated.”

Care at the zoo

Too much food from people left Buttons overweight, and McCorquodale said the current estimate of 570 pounds puts her well above the average weight of 500 pounds for an elk in the herd. Buttons won’t eat nearly as much sugar in her new home, although Pramuk said the elk will still get treats such as carrots to go with a steady diet of hay, alfalfa and grains.

Sharpe and her staff at the zoo plan to desensitize Buttons to different medical procedures so they can avoid immobilizing her, and they anticipate Buttons will need some time to adjust to her new surroundings and become comfortable with her fellow elk. The zoo’s bull had a vasectomy to prevent any pregnancies and the Sharpe noted the other two cows are Roosevelt elk, making them a little bigger than Rocky Mountain elk such as Buttons.

Pramuk said anyone wanting to visit Buttons should wait at least a month before going to see her at the Northern Trail exhibit. Eventually, donors should be able to go on tours and even feed Buttons carrots through the fence.

McCorquodale hopes Buttons will serve as a reminder of why people should always avoid feeding or touching elk and advised anyone who finds an injured or orphaned animal to call the wildlife department. Watts said he or another officer could potentially relocate animals to a herd that would allow them to survive in the wild.

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