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A very special elk turns 10!

Posted by Elizabeth Bacher, Communications
Buttons celebrates a milestone and reminds us to help wild animals stay wild!

Happy birthday, Buttons! Photo: Jeremy Dwyer-Lindgren/Woodland Park Zoo

The spring of 2022 marks a big milestone for one of the more well-known members of our elk herd—Buttons. While we don’t know her exact birthday, this sassy girl—who was born in the wild in eastern Washington—is turning 10 years old! Pregnant elk cows tend to have their calves within the same birthing window, which in our region ranges from the end of May through June. So, it is likely that Buttons was born sometime within that span of time in 2012.

Why so scruffy, Buttons? In the spring, an elk's winter coat will drop off and molt into a sleek shorter summer coat. Photo: Jeremy Dwyer-Lindgren/Woodland Park Zoo

Buttons gained notoriety several years ago in the area between Ellensburg and Cle Elum where residents—believing she was orphaned—began feeding her, petting her and even putting kids onto her back. While she was usually friendly with humans, Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) managers say they also got calls about her damaging property, harassing pets and occasionally acting aggressively.
Photo: John Loughlin/Woodland Park Zoo

For her safety and the community’s, WDFW biologists tried their best to relocate Buttons to a more remote area, hoping that she would integrate with the wild elk herds there—but she was already too imprinted on humans and could not be re-released into the wild. Another solution was needed and in the spring of 2019 Woodland Park Zoo became her new home.

WDFW biologists tried to reintegrate Buttons into wild elk herds, but she was already too imprinted on humans. Photo: Scott McCorquodale/Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife

Buttons is one of the lucky ones. And her story reminds us why—when sharing habitat with wildlife—we should take great care to let wild animals stay wild. That means not interacting with them in ways that make them too comfortable around people or enabling them to become reliant on humans. When that happens, it opens the doors to behaviors that can become dangerous to people and pets and can lead to the death of the animal.

Photo: John Loughlin/Woodland Park Zoo

It’s natural to want to help an animal that appears to be hurt or orphaned and finding a baby bird on the ground or a fawn in the grass no doubt brings out people’s best intentions. But most of the time, those babies are not orphaned at all, and mom is actually close by, waiting to tend to her youngster.

Photo: John Loughlin/Woodland Park Zoo

The best thing to do in those situations is to contact people from Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife , a vetted wildlife rehab organization (such as PAWS) or another licensed expert. They are uniquely qualified to know when an animal really needs help and to provide care in a setting that doesn’t create an unnatural dependence on humans.

Goodwyn is our handsome male Rocky Mountain elk. Photo: Jeremy Dwyer-Lindgren/Woodland Park Zoo

There are two subspecies of elk in the wild in Washington state—Roosevelt elk are primarily on the west side of the Cascades and Rocky Mountain elk are primarily on the east side. Buttons is a Rocky Mountain elk, as is Goodwyn, our resident male elk. We also have two Roosevelt females, Lily and Willow. We’re happy to report that in the last few years, Buttons has settled into a nice routine with all the members of her herd and with her amazing animal keepers, too.

Elk are quite at home in the snow. Here at Woodland Park Zoo, our group is a herd for all seasons!. Photo: Jeremy Dwyer-Lindgren

Our animal keepers say that Buttons has a lot of personality and is not shy at all about “sharing” her opinions! They describe her as sassy, curious, sweet, and independent-minded—maybe even a little bit bossy with some of her herd-mates! Apparently, Buttons is a bit of a “nosy neighbor,” too! She’s been known to peer around the wall and watch when the wolves (who live in the habitat next door, safely separated by fencing and a deep ravine) play with their enrichment boxes—seemingly unaware that in the wild, elk can be on the menu for wolves!

Buttons is a very curious and sassy girl! Photo: Jeremy Dwyer-Lindgren/Woodland Park Zoo

Speaking of food, Buttons is an enthusiastic fan—this girl is never late for meals or snack time! Her daily diet includes a scoop of high-fiber alfalfa pellets (with added vitamins and minerals), an apple, a head of romaine, some greens, carrots, alfalfa and grass hay. Her favorite treats are fortified leaf-eater biscuits and purple cabbage—and of course, she can graze and nibble to her heart’s content on grass and several kinds of leaves and plants in her spacious exhibit area.

Photo: Jeremy Dwyer-Lindgren/Woodland Park Zoo

So, what kind of birthday gift do you get for the elk who seemingly has everything she could possibly need? We recommend honoring Buttons’ birthday by remembering her story and helping wild animals stay wild. If you find a fawn, elk calf, baby otter, sea lion pups, baby birds or any other wildlife, it’s best to just let it be. Oftentimes, the mother is off feeding and the animal is not orphaned—and taming it is never a good option for the animal. If you have questions about whether an animal is truly orphaned or injured, you can find more information at the PAWS Wildlife website (Progressive Animal Welfare Society in Lynnwood, Wash.) or at WDFW’s site:

PAWS has resources to help if you think you found an orphaned animal. See more at their website:

Woodland Park Zoo's Living Northwest Trail exhibit area—home to our elk herd and other native wildlife—highlights conservation successes and challenges up ahead as we all work together to create a sustainable future for people and animals in the Northwest.

Visit for tips on how to coexist with wildlife, discover conservation actions in your backyard and help recover habitat for animals and humans alike. #IAmLivingNorthwest 


Anonymous said…
Happy Birthday Buttons! We miss you but glad you are safe & doing well & making friends!
Anonymous said…
Happy birthday Buttons! I miss seeing you! I have photos of her at a job I was doing lol she tried to come into a house I was cleaning.. than sticking her nosey nose into my bag.. she sure liked her scratches!
Anonymous said…
I miss you Button. My drives to Eburg just aren’t the same since you moved to Seattle. Glad you are safe.
Anonymous said…
Love ♥️ our Button's. Happy birthday !
Anonymous said…
Happy birthday Buttons..glad you are safe and comfy..😊❤️👍🎉🎊
Emma Starrish said…
Happy birthday to you Buttons. So happy you are happy & doing well. Lots of love & hugs sent
Anonymous said…
Such a wonderful progress report! So very happy to hear it. Keep on thriving♥️
Anonymous said…
Glad she's safe, miss seeing her around town,side note she was abandoned by her mom and just made herself at home with a bunch of horses and cattle got to use to people, great outcome