Elk from Headbutting Incident Put Down by National Park, Photographer Appalled


A couple of days ago we shared a video/story that has since gone viral across the Internet. The video showed photographer James York getting into a bit of a headbutting match with a young bull elk who took an interest in his gear before getting aggressive.

Today we’ve found out that the elk in question has since been put down by Rangers at Great Smoky Mountains National Park, leaving much of the internet and York himself saddened and speechless.

The altercation happened in the Cataloochee Valley of Great Smoky Mountains National Park, and although it could have gotten very ugly very quickly, everything went okay and elk and human eventually parted ways without anybody getting hurt.


At least that’s what everybody thought until the park confirmed to NBC that the elk was put down by Rangers after the incident because he “could not be re-trained to be fearful of humans.”

According park spokeswoman Molly Schroer, the elk had been coming back to that area in search of food as a result of previous humans feeding him, and had begun associating humans with food.

Here’s another look at the viral video:

When York found out what happened, he issued a statement that was added to the description in the video above:

I love and respect animals and that’s why I photograph them and don’t hunt them. I am deeply hurt by the loss of such a beautiful creature that in its own way bonded with me. I looked forward to watching him grow to a mature bull as the years passed.

I’m truly heartbroken to know he is gone.

Park Rangers assured York that he did nothing wrong in the video. The elk had been exhibiting aggressive behavior for a long time, and this was apparently their only course of action. This isn’t something the park resorts to often and, in fact, this elk is the first the park has ever put down.

York, however, tells NBC that “all the joy is gone.” Now that the animal has been put down, he says he wishes the photos/video and the viral attention they garnered had never happened.

(via WBIR NBC)

  • lisajh

    I’m not debating this particular post, just want to say then if he is amateur he still might have done whatever he thought was the best to do. I’m not sure if I blame him. I just feel sorry the elk is dead. We are all human, and some have had a longer time to learn what is right and wrong to do. I’d love to see your work Todd, you sound like a great photographer. I just hate it when people sound like the know the whole story and don’t. I know and you know that you can’t claim you do, it was just your tone that irked me. If that even applies on the internet.

  • Todd Klassy

    That I can agree with. Mostly. He might not have known what was the correct thing to do. I just wish more people would arm themselves with the right information before they head off into the woods with their camera.

  • Sky

    Can I blame both?
    – People for feeding
    – Rangers for killing.

    I don’t know what they do in US – obviously don’t give a s*** and just kill animals, but here in Poland we got schools for animals like that where they learn to live in a wild and be afraid of humans. Noone would kill an elk just because it was too friendly to humans.

  • Sky

    “Th buck was definitely showing aggression” – you never seen an elk showing aggression. This guy would be long dead or at least: heavily wounded in a hospital if it’d really show even a spark of aggression.

    It was just a curiosity. (I grew up in a family of foresters, so seen few things in my life)

  • Sky

    “It’s not the job of humans to “train” or “re-train” wild animals. Our only job is to let them be and co-exist peacefully.” – totally agreed. Sadly: World isn’t perfect, so sometimes we have to train animals (whatever it is to learn them live with us, or learn them live away from us – though I guess killing is always the easiest solution).

  • Sky

    Typical American approach sadly – if something requires an effort: shoot it.

  • Sky

    That’s why there are schools for wild animals like that – to learn them live away from humans. But I guess it’s not in US – out there they just kill them.

  • Ali Coombes

    I’m afraid it is more likely the former. I live in The New Forest and we (the local commoners) run wild ponies on the forest. Time and time again we see tourists feeding our livestock, despite various local authorities telling people not to.
    Now, here’s the similar bit to the above story. Normally the ponies will leave people well alone, most will even move off if you get too close. Those that have been fed however learn that people mean food, and will therefore linger around tourist hotspots, carparks and the like.
    These horses then can, and will, become aggressive if people are around and no food is forthcoming. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve seen tourists come close to being bitten or kicked, or even have actually been, because they either got too close to the animal, thinking it was tame (the ‘aww look at the cute little pony’ syndrome) or have stopped feeding/not fed it.
    Hell, I even had a donkey stick it’s head through my car window and have a go at biting me last summer as I was sitting enjoying an ice cream with my wife! Why did it do this? Because tourists, by feeding it through their car windows, taught it that cars mean food, and it got rather aggressive when it didn’t get given anything.

  • Nick V

    This buck was just curious. If they put this young buck down for what he did, we should be putting puppies down left and right. There was nothing that either of these two did that I would say was aggressive. Like another said, if the buck wanted to be aggressive, this video would have turned out a lot different.

  • nomadnewyork

    Please don’t feed wild animals! Please!

  • Megan

    I understand why people are upset, but let’s not pretend that this was some sort of rare and endangered species that was put down. Elk are plentiful, they’re hunted, and you can even buy elk meat in some butcher shops.

  • Christopher King

    “I love and respect animals and that’s why I photograph them and don’t hunt them.”

    A hunter would never let this happen. They would stay down wind, out of sight and enjoy nature the way it should be enjoyed.

  • Michael Palmer

    I’ve noticed that the ponies in Lyndhurst are much more likely to come up to you. Whereas the ones in less popular bits of the New Forest walk away if you get anywhere close to them.

  • A.J.

    That’s a lot of venison!

  • Woody ONeal

    I am a photographer and a hunter. Let me lend my perspective.

    First off, these elk were “re-planted” here years ago as part of an initiative of the the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation. Elk used to live in most of the entire Eastern USA.

    It’s my understanding that the project has been successful and thus worth preserving.

    So the Rangers have a responsibility to ensure that the population in the National Park continue to thrive.

    In my 15 years of hunting Elk in Colorado, I have NEVER seen this type of activity. My suspicion is that this one young bull (perhaps others) had become very complacent with his surroundings. Perhaps as a result of too much feeding by tourists.

    The Rangers are responsible not only to protect visitors, but also to the wildlife in their parks.

    As a photographer, I was drawn to this story because I can see where the prospect of capturing an up close image is enticing. However, the very issue here is responsibility.

    I think it was irresponsible of the photographer to continue the folly exchange with the elk. What where his true intentions?

    If you want to get close up to nature, get a 400mm prime, or go to a zoo, or go on safari.

    The Rangers did what ANY respecting nature lover would do. That is, put down the animal so that it does not harm a human, or breed further generations of elk who might exhibit the same behavior.

    Elk are wild animals, let them remain such.

  • byoung328

    I’m blaming the NFS for this one. They reintroduced these Elk into the Cataloochee Valley about 10 years ago, and then immediately starting advertising that people could view Elk in the valley. They sell books and souvenirs at the nearby Cataloochee Visitors Center, and they even cone off parking along the road when the Elk come out to graze. Dozens if not hundreds of people pull over to view them often at very close distances. When you use wildlife as an advertising tool for the most visited National Park in the country don’t be surprised if they end up no longer fearing humans.

  • GSMA Member

    A still photo I saw online shows additional photographers standing along the road taking photos. I do not agree with putting this animal down. These photographers were less than the distance required by law and are total responsible for this elk’s demise. When you are in the park there is a degree of risk you accept. Photographers will go to extremes to get photos. Was the photographer familiar with the elk and hoping for an incredible photo? If he was potentially in danger – why did no one attempt to scare the elk away? Why did no one else pull their vehicle up for York to simply get in? Shameful.

  • jrconner

    Wild animals that become habituated to people can become increasingly aggressive and dangerous. Killing the elk was the NPS’s last resort and surely was not undertaken without considerable review or before exhausting alternatives. Regardless of the reasons why the elk became aggressive, it had become dangerous and the NPS had to deal with the hazard it posed. I’d cut the NPS some slack on this.

  • mrtobin

    The photographer should be “put down” also.

  • Larry N. Marsh

    They didn’t have to shoot it.

  • Eugene Chok

    take only pictures, leave only footprints

  • littlebrotherc

    ALL wild animals are Dangerous period. Disney has done more disservice to wild animals than any other person in history! When people enter into our National Parks they seem to think ,incorrectly I might add, that the wild animals there are creatures from some Disney movie. This “photographer” obviously has no experience around wild animals, same as most of the people posting on this topic. I enjoy these animals as much as the next person, but I am a hunter and outdoor enthusiast. when I encounter any wild animal i give it plenty of space, because I know what kind of damage an animal can do. Many people who only wanted to get up close to “Bamii” have been gored and severely injured because of their ignorance of wild animals. The photographer was ignorant of animal behavior. When this elk made his first steps toward him, he should have stood up and moved to safer location. This elk was not being “cute” he was showing his dominance in his element. The photographer was extremely lucky he wasn’t run through by the antlers of the 800 pound elk. Anyone who enters into the home of wild animals should understand the nature and actions of all the the animals they may encounter. In this encounter the Photog was the one that is truly at fault. He caused this situation and let it escalate.

  • Ali Coombes

    It’s the same problem in all the popular areas, Moyles Court, Stoney Cross, Appleslade, Boldrewood… But go to Pinnick or Roe and they’ll move off.
    It’s a serious problem as we’re getting more and more collisions on the roads involving animals as they are attracted to the roads by people feeding them from cars etc. The sooner tourists start listening to what they’re being told and realising that the animals on forest are wild and best left alone, the better.

  • jgoodas

    I think that elk was behaving just like some of the celebrities who don’t want their pictures taken!
    Too bad it had to be put down.

  • Tony Harris

    James is actually my brother in law. So I DO know him. I know he is a SERIOUS photographer, and is anything but a hobbyist, or an amateur. BUT, I digress. Its so nice the we have such a “klassy” guy, who clearly has sooooo much info that we all do not, that make his comments Ironclad, Irrefutable, fact. Thank GOD yer here buddy.

  • Tony Harris

    Also, even the novice or everyman with ANY common sense knows that you dont get uop and haul ass from a wild animal twice your size. You arre inviting the chase.

  • Xondra

    A completely wrong and unjust action. Extremely violent in its character. We are the invaders of their territory, not them. They could have relocated the elk, but humans in their stupid and extreme ego rather kill the elk than respect its life. I’m deeply saddened and angry at that stupid, narcissistic ranger. He should be fired for his action.

  • Todd Klassy

    I never questioned whether or not he was a serious photographer or not. I’m sure he is. So serious he put himself in harm’s way to get a shot.

    Further, it is also true that I may not be a “klassy” guy. And I may be preaching a bit here, but in all my years photographing I have never allowed an animal to get that close to me, I have never nearly been gored or attacked by a wild animal, and no animals have been harmed as a result of my actions. So if you don’t like what I have to say, then at accept my honest opinion that I don’t like how he approached this situation and I fault him IN PART for the unfortunate death of this animal.

  • Todd Klassy

    This I agree with. I’m not finding fault with his action in that instance. I’m merely critical of him placing himself in that situation in the first place.

  • David C

    Elk attacks man, will do so again in future. Simple animal instinct.

    Imagine the outrage if it killed a child in the future and this was revealed to have happened… the park services would have been lashed at for “not resolving it sooner”.

    This isn’t a peace loving fluffy little deer wanting to snuggle, it’s an aggressive adolescent elk attacking what it perceives to be a threat. Don’t anthropomorphise it. It’s not a celebrity, it’s an animal that has already shown it’s willing to attack humans.

    No different to a dangerous dog attacking a person.

    Take off your rose tinted glasses.

  • gs

    1. Afaic the welfare of a human, or of creatures like livestock and pets for which humans have taken responsibility, is more important than the life of a wild animal.

    2. If there are benign ways to condition wild animals to avoid humans, I’m all for it.

    3. If people irresponsibly provoke wild animals, throw the book at them.

    4. But #1 comes first.

  • A.J.

    WTF? You’re trying to force in your political views into a story that has nothing to do with that is a typical symptom of an unhealthy obsession.

    I think you’d be a lot happier and healthier if you started by turning off the AM radio.

  • Theresa Z

    I didn’t say a petting zoo.

  • sss

    This is absolutely unnecessary.

    Humans are aggressive.. They are, in fact, the world’s most destructive animals. Did you know that sharks are almost 1/100 the danger we are? The only reason we fear them? Because they have a higher status in nature than us.

  • PANZER357

    Killing this animal was wrong. They should have darted it and relocated it. There is no excuse for putting it down…

  • jhardy

    It’s to bad they could not have moved the Elk somewhere or something other then put him down. That Photographer is lucky the Elk went easy with him. If he started with his front legs, which he almost did, or harder head butting we would have a dead Photographer. It’s so unfair they had to put that Beautiful Animal down. The Photographer should have got into the car as soon as it all started. If anyone is to Blame for the death of the Elk it’s the Photographer. Isn’t that why you have a Camera?? Take your pictures and leave the Animal alone in it’s environment! I just think there must have been another way then to put the Elk down. The Photographer, who doesn’t seem to know what his Camera is for, should have to pay a very heavy fine for what he did. Better yet, seize all his Camera Equipment. Because of him they killed the Elk for being an Elk?? Why does he walk away scott free??? I can’t believe he thinks the Elk was bonding with him! And I don’t accept his apology! I’d like to head butt him a few times myself and then kick his ass!! And for those of you that agree with the Photographer, would you sit on the ground in front of a 4-500 pound WILD Elk with 2 foot Antlers who keeps poking them at your face??? You would have to be freaking nuts!! That Elk could have accidently killed him in the blink of an eye. The guy is a Moron, end of story!!

  • Nathan Lake

    It is not the elk’s behavior that was not cute. It was the human’s behavior. What an idiot. Another example of a foolish human costing an animal its life.

  • Lissa Cakes

    That’s just sad, couldn’t they have relocated him or put him in a zoo.

  • James Slade

    I’m hearing the word “viral” a lot in this article, I don’t think this video is very viral at all. there are like 6 video’s of it on you-tube all with under a thousand hits. Clearly this is just a publicity thing. I don’t think this is the place to save that animal.
    If it were kept alive and tried to play the same game with a picnic-ing family the next week, I doubt very much this article would be about how they should’ve left it alone.

  • Rae

    The problem is that the elk was NOT being aggressive at all, but playing with an equal. The fact is that they could have retrained him to fear humans, several wildlife facilities do just that, daily. They just wanted the easy way out. They could have darted him and transported him to another area, rehabilitating him there. There were solutions other than putting him down, they just took the easy way out. It is very sad.

  • Rae

    This young elk showed absolutely ZERO aggression. He was playing. Ducking your head down encourages them to duck theirs down too, thinking the other wants to play too. This young buck had not yet reached sexual maturity, which is why they get aggressive with one another. If you notice, every time the guy lifted his head, the young bull backed off. Even if this young buck had put his antler into the guy’s chest, he wasn’t pushing hard enough to even pierce the skin. Not a close call at all. Not to mention, there are thousands of wildlife facilities who rehabilitate wildlife that have just started getting “friendly” with humans, to teach them again that humans are not their friends. There were other options, just none as easy and cheap as putting him down. It is ridiculous and sad!

  • Rae

    It certainly could have been retrained, wildlife facilities do it all the time. The rangers just took the easy and cheap way out instead of actually caring for the wildlife they are supposed to protect!

  • Rae

    You claim to work with wildlife, yet you don’t include that this young buck has not yet reached sexual maturity. He isn’t yet aware of how to use his antlers. He was not being aggressive, he was responding to the photographer putting his head down, signaling that he would like to “play” with him. The elk should not be that comfortable with people to begin with, so OBVIOUSLY the problem existed BEFORE this guy even thought of letting him get that close. The rangers did not have to kill the elk, there are other options. There are zoos, there are wildlife facilities who specialize in retraining animals to live in the wild. The rangers took the cheap and easy way out. Feeding wild animals is and always has been a bad thing. Photographing them has not and will never be a bad thing. And, the photographer has every right to be appalled, after all, he was in the elk’s territory and never blamed the animal for their encounter. That is the REAL problem, that the animals are always blamed for the interactions. If a human dies from their own stupidity, it is not the animals fault and the animal should not be killed. If the animal seeks out the human and chases and kills them, through no fault of the human, then yes, killing is acceptable.

  • Rae

    He was not in any way being aggressive. Killing him was very unnecessary! Relocation and rehabilitation would have solved the problem. If he was being aggressive, the photographer would not be appalled, he’d be dead.

  • Rae

    First of all, the elk was not being aggressive at all. If he was being aggressive, the photographer would be dead or at least seriously injured. He didn’t attack the man at all, he was simply curious and comfortable around humans. The photographer was encouraging the elk by lowering his head. If you watch the video, you’ll notice that every time the man raises his head, the elk backs off. Thus, not showing aggression. Relocation and or rehabilitation would have been more than sufficient to keep the life of this elk preserved. Resolution does not have to equal death. This elk did not charge at the man, antlers down, gouging him an tearing him up, so your reference to a dangerous dog is invalid.

  • Pam

    I hope the photos he got while letting it do that was worth it.

  • Rebecca Kleitz

    Most humans are so disgusting and vile and hateful.
    I will NEVER visit Great Smoky Mts. National Park.
    I suggest all animal lovers do the same.
    Heartless, worthless bastards.

  • Guest

    This video is so obviously fake. It was pretty smart of the editor to put a moving woman in the GMC Terrain though. And I’m guessing you used fishing line to pull of the hat? not bad.

  • Evan

    This video is fake. It’s fairly well done, and the people who made it knew what to do to make it look believable (moving cars and people in background, the guy getting in one of the cars, etc) but still.

    Don’t believe me? go to the 4 minute mark, watch his hat. They probably used a fishing line to pull it off (literally and figuratively)