10/06/1997 at 01:00 AM EDT
THERE ARE SOME THINGS BIOLOGIST Joel Berger and his wife, Carol Cunningham, will not do for science. They won't don their fake-fur moose suit during hunting season. And they try never, ever to antagonize their 1,000-pound subjects. Though "moose are generally docile," says Berger, "they can knock you down with their chests and then stomp you to death with their hooves."
Risky business, but, say Berger, 45, and Cunningham, 43, pioneering work. Their current research project is aimed at learning if moose retain their fear response to predators, the reason being that mountain lions, grizzly bears and wolves are returning in significant numbers after having been largely killed off in the continental U.S. Sponsored by the New York City-based Wildlife Conservation Society, Berger, a well-known wildlife biologist currently teaching at the University of Nevada at Reno, has logged many an icy day in the wilds of Wyoming, Alaska and even Siberia to conduct what he calls "a big, global experiment."
And a waste-full one at that. To test moose reaction to predators' scents, Berger and Cunningham pack snowballs with—are you sitting down?—grizzly bear feces, Siberian tiger dung and wolf urine. Obtaining this scat is surprisingly easy: Zoos and the educational Grizzly Discovery Center in West Yellowstone, Mont., have an abundance just for the asking. But, as the mooseketeers discovered when they began their experiments in Moose, Wyo., near Jackson Hole, there is one problem: Berger found that when he pitched the frozen scat balls or launched them by slingshot from more than 40 yards away, he couldn't get an accurate throw without disturbing the moose. "You want the scat to land gently," explains Berger.
Two summers ago he and his wife hit on a solution. "We had known that Native Americans hunting bison would dress up in animal skins to try to get closer," says Berger. "So dressing up like a moose made good sense." Fortunately, Berger and Cunningham needed to look for help no further than Jackson Hole neighbor Debra Markert, 44, a former Hollywood costumer who helped design creature outfits for the 1983 Star Wars sequel Return of the jedi. After studying moose heads hanging on the walls of local saloons, Markert fashioned a moose look-alike dubbed "Millie," named after an actual moose Berger had studied since beginning his research project three years before.
Dressing up in the moose suit is no costume party. Berger takes the lead, donning the head (fitted on the inside with a baseball cap for stability) and keeping his arms free so that he can toss scat and take notes. Cunningham brings up the rear. "It's awkward, and I can't see anything," she says. "I'm just hoping Joel is going to be a smart guy, and when he sees the moose are getting aggravated, he backs off." Once suited up, the two approach their quarry cautiously. "We'll put our head down and pretend we are feeding," says Berger. "We might even lie down for five minutes and gradually get close. Then they treat us fine."
Berger, the son of a retired Los Angeles hospital-lab biologist and his wife, an office manager, grew up surfing and playing baseball before earning his doctorate in biology at the University of Colorado in Boulder. Cunningham, whose parents are teachers, is also a Southern California native. After getting a literature degree from the University of Nevada at Reno, she met her husband-to-be when she volunteered for his 1980 project to study endangered wild horses. Married five years later, the two have also researched buffalo and rhino, documenting their work in two scholarly texts: Wild Horses of the Great Basin (1986) and Bison (1994), and in Horn of Darkness: Rhinos on the Edge (1997), which they published after three years in the African bush.
For the current school year they have returned to Reno, where they live with their daughter Sonja, 8, in a log house adorned with moose antlers. But Berger and Cunningham look forward to next spring, when they will resume their research in their tear-away moose suit. "We had to make sure it was something that could come off easily," says designer Markert. "If you're ever around moose in rutting season, it can be fairly dangerous."
VICKIE BANE in Moose