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)

  • Zos Xavius

    Truly sad, but I understand why they did that. This kind of behavior wouldn’t be so cute when it was full sized.

  • Ian

    This, sadly, is the only result when humans feed wild animals. Here in Florida, alligators (obviously far less sympathetic creatures) are killed every day because some idiot feeds them.

  • malixe

    Be sad now if you want, but don’t blame the park rangers. Blame the people that have trained the elk to behave that way by feeding it and trying to treat it like a pet. The next time the elk didn’t get what it wanted from a human it might hurt them badly instead of going away like it did this time. Wild animals ain’t Bambi.

  • Cathy

    That photographer is very, very lucky that it didn’t get any worse. Th buck was definitely showing aggression, and if that antler had pierced his chest, he would have been a goner. As was already pointed out, this was a young buck, and the behavior would have gotten worse along with his size getting bigger. The park really had no choice in what they had to do. Thing is, people brought this on themselves by feeding the animals. People don’t realize that just because you can get up close, this does not mean that this is a zoo or that the animals can’t be treated like pets.

  • Deanna

    How horrible and I would think after repeatedly yelling and chasing the Elk away it could have been retrained to fear people and didn’t have to be put down. Shame on the people who feed them!!

  • Island In The Sky

    Totally agree.
    I’ve seen people in national parks trying to get cute by attempting to feed squirrels, chipmunks, crows – against what the Park Service warns people NOT to do.
    These idiots who think they’re “bonding” – as York laughably thought he was doing – with wildlife are only hurting these animals in the long run.

  • Lee

    Even the photographer is not totally responsible for the put down, he is probably the last straw on the camel back for their decision. Sad indeed – but if this incident make him/ other photographers stop shooting wild animal too close, this incident probably save more animals and photographer lives in the long run.

  • Jeremiah Policky

    maybe the bigger issue is the fact that people in general think they have the right to take over the elk’s territory and habitat in the first place.

  • Todd Klassy

    He’s appalled? He is the only one to blame for this action. If you look closely he was using a wide angle lens. His telephoto is still attached to the tripod next to him. The elk approached him and he let this encounter happen despite the fact it was VERY, VERY dangerous. The start of the YouTube video says he was photographing from a “safe and respectful distance.” What a bunch of malarkey. This guy is a tool, and he’s one of the reasons why he ruins it for the rest of us.

    Appalled? The only one he should be a appalled with is himself.

  • 5345435

    stop eating meat you hypocrits…. every day animals die becssue you want to eat cheap burgers and sausage.

  • dawedwqedw

    shut up hypocrit….

  • Brian Todd

    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. The elk is killed because humans fed it. That’s not the fault of the elk. You can’t train humans not to feed them anymore than you can train the elk behave a certain way. There will always be morons that feed them and create this behavior. As the human population grows, this will only happen more. We can’t kill every elk, bear, etc. that starts to act like this. People should be warned of what can happen and leave it at that. If they don’t want to listen to reason, and they choose to feed it, or people decide to get of their cars to take pics, and are harmed, then that’s their problem. Killing every creature that has had their territory invaded by humans and taught behavior through feeding is not the answer. We, as people, are determined to destroy this earth and nature one tree and animal at a time…..

  • Garym5

    The elk was only doing what they would normally do, It was young and curious – didn’t have to put it down. if he had of stood up the first time and charged it would have ran away.

  • Carl Meyer

    Why using an euphemism instead of just saying that it has been killed?

    The real reason to kill the elk has been the faux outrage about how the guy was attacked and they didn’t do nothing.

  • Scott

    Have you ever thought that possibly he was trying to take a landscape picture with the elk included as an element in the picture?

    Just cause he was using a wide angle lens doesn’t mean he was going to move any closer then the side of the road.

    The rangers don’t blame the photographer so why do you who obviously has less information about the incident, the animal in question and the park feel the need to do so?

  • woodsyowl

    Don’t forget, WE intruded on the Elk’s land, not vice-versa. He should have been relocated, if anything. Shame on you, NPS. You do not OWN nature.

  • Kynikos

    If we’re not supposed to eat animals, why are they made out of meat?

  • Todd Klassy

    How am I a hypcrit (sic)?

  • Todd Klassy

    Have you ever photographed elk? I have. He was clearly in an area where elk were rutting. In other words, he likely didn’t need to be in the wide open like he was. It takes time for elk to cover ground and be right on top of you. The mere fact he switched from a telephoto lens to a wide angle lens (so he could photograph it while it was close) is proof positive he wasn’t there to photograph a landscape. He was there to photograph the elk. He switched lenses, evident by the fact that the telephoto is still attached to the tripod without a lens cap.

    I blame the photographer because there is a road there. There is no need to be outside of your car, or to not have the car as a shield. There is no reason why couldn’t left the scene when the elk approached, or move behind one of the other cars, or a tree. No, he sat there and was more focused on getting the shot than his welfare or obviously the welfare of that animal.

    Do you know how many times I have seen photographers do this? Far more frequent than anyone realizes. Just take a trip to Yellowstone or Glacier and you too can bear witness to many morons putting themselves in similar situations.

  • malaviKat

    I’m not entirely sure why you’re squarely blaming the photographer, given how this story is reported. While I don’t condone putting down the elk for behaving as elk do, the rangers contend that the elk demonstrated dangerous behaviour for some time, arguably more time than the duration of its encounter with this particular photographer. It was that that was used to “justify” the elk’s death, not the one incident.

    Again, I don’t particularly agree with the rangers’ opinion of the situation, but I don’t see how, given that account, the blame could possibly rest with one photographer.

  • Bill

    No way man, we grow beefs, pork and poultry, like plants, and they’re slaughtered humanly. This is totally different, yea I know that elk was an a$$hole, but it didn’t know that photog was higher up the food chain, if it had known I’m sure it would’ve posed properly and majestically. Can you imagine that great beast in the foreground with the Great Smokey Mountains as the backdrop? We need to train these animals to pose, and then the problem is solved. I think if everyone would get on board with my idea if only we could coalesce around what I think is best then maybe just maybe humanity has a chance.

  • Todd Klassy

    It probably isn’t fair to blame the photographer completely, but I do place some of the blame on him. The one fact that remains is the fact that he acted irresponsibly. And for that reason alone I place part of the blame on him.

  • Mansgame, man.

    The photographer could have took pictures with a telephoto but he decided to get up close and personal. Then he had several chances to either call for help or just walk away but kept egging the animal on. He should shut the hell up about being upset, he is just as in fault.

  • malaviKat

    Some blame definitely. But I’d also place blame on the numerous other tourists who no doubt fed and acclimated the elk before that photographer ever arrived.

  • Todd Klassy

    Agreed. Which does not change the fact that the photographer was a moron.

  • Chuck Fitzgerald

    Hi Todd, being from the same neck of the woods as you, I agree. I have seen morons go right up to 2,000 lb. Bison in Yellowstone, even pose their children next to them. He should have got the H out of there as soon as the Elk started to come closer, no photo is worth the animals life or your own. He was lucky, unfortunately the other morons feeding it will probably never know the damage they caused. As always, I enjoy your work, hope to meet you in the field some day as I have some of the same photos as you, albeit not quite as good, but I am practicing. Take care and Happy Shooting.

  • CaddyOne LoveChrist

    The buck stops here. :(

  • Jon Peckham

    The morons could have relocated him in the wild somewhere safe away from humans. Whenever the state is involved, there is always violence and destruction. I am not surprised. Too bad you stupid people still worship the state . . .

  • pam

    terrible killing the elk the guy wasnt hat upset dam

  • Jeff Davis

    I don’t think this was a case of the elk being used to people, and possibly people feeding it.
    This is aggressive behavior that the elk had towards, what he thought, was another elk.
    They battle for dominance.
    The photographer should have gotten up and left, instead of staying.
    By him staying, it was him saying, okay lets go buddy.

  • Nicholas

    I totally agree with you. Doesn’t really surprise me that they put the elk down. I assumed something like this was going to happen.

  • Al

    Don’t forget that wherever you are living now, used to be wildlife land a while back. So why don’t you get off your high horse?

    The national parks are there to ensure we do not encroach further.

    Shame on you.

  • MS

    Yea it’s sad, but nothing some BBQ sauce can’t fix.

  • Gloria Sorenson Reiss

    so true, I have seen first hand what an angry Elk can do to something, when they attack, and they do, all that is left after is a bloody spot on the ground, these are NOT cute little pets ever

  • Vin Weathermon

    Blaming the photographer, blaming the park ranger, blaming people who fed elks….whatever. What got him killed was the video that someone put on youtube and went “viral”….in other words, us.

  • rusureuwant2know

    He was also obviously spooky – I think he could have easily been run off with a lot of noise and hat waving.

  • rusureuwant2know

    I hope someone made use of the venison.

  • Robu

    Because your an idiot? Is your natural response to a larger animal to run or make loud noises and frighten it? No its not, you don’t show aggression in order to diffuse the situation. The photographer sitting there didn’t instigate this, the fact other humans had been able to show this animal that they can come up to you and expect things (such as food, and because the photographer wasn’t giving him any he got aggressive about it)

  • Theresa Z

    Why wouldn’t they take him to a preserve, why kill this beautiful animal? I am speechless.

  • eco

    If you read the story from the original post you would know he was a safe distance away. The elk came out of the woods near him while he was photographing other elks. Check you facts before you offer an opinion.

  • Sterling

    Yes, Park Rangers killed the elk because they didn’t think to repeatedly yell, wave their hats, and chase it away. Everyone’s an expert.

  • Todd Klassy

    It’s “you’re,” not “your.”

    And your response is not evidence of me being a hypocrit (sic).

    But to answer your question, my natural response to an approaching wild animal is not to place myself into a situation where I can be approached by one in the first place. If this photographer had time to switch lenses, which the video clearly shows, then he had time to stand up and remove himself slowly from the immediate area. No, this moron instead stayed in place and allowed the animal to approach.

    The video starts with the statement that the photographer was photographing from a “safe and respectful distance.” He clearly was not. Had he been, the elk would not have been able to engage the photographer like he did in the video.

    Wilderness is not your personal playground. It is not New York’s Central Park, a zoo, or Disneyland. It is real. It is raw. And when this “photographer” put himself into a situation where the elk could engage him like he did, he should know he was very lucky he was not gored. He was lucky. But the elk had to die as a consequence. Who knows, maybe that animal would be alive today if his buffoonery had been placed on YouTube so wardens could be alerted.

    He should not be appalled the elk was killed. He should instead know that he is an accomplice in its death.

  • ugnome

    Yes beautiful–until he head butts a 10-year old and kills the child. Any animal that show this kind of behavior is a danger to people who visit the park. Unfortunate, but necessary.

  • Del G

    Disappointed, the photographer had a responsibility to get out of the way and avoid the interaction… At this point I wouldn’t call him a photographer, but a wanna be “elk whisperer” gone wrong. Time & time we see people out in our parks who get caught up in the O’l “one with nature” fever… Especially when an audience builds, this guy knew people were watching him and capturing his “15 minutes of fame”… What a shame it was at the expense of Buddy the Elk!

  • Daniel Hine

    First we take over the bloody world, and then we think we can control the way animals behave.
    They’re different creatures! I don’t care what the excuse was, why impose your will on an animal?

  • lisajh

    Could they not have had that elk transported to a better national park where they are not so close to humans?

  • lisajh

    Or hell, at least a wildlife sanctuary. Killing it for no useful purpose is stupid.

  • lisajh

    I hate when people pretend to have the whole story or believe for some reason that they know the truth. Just because you see him start from a distance that isn’t that far, doesn’t mean he wasn’t further away (prior to video) and it started to come closer. National Geographic photographers often risk their lives for great shots. I don’t know whether standing up, chasing it or yelling would have stopped the animal, we don’t know. He didn’t know. He is not at fault for having the animal put down. The people who put him down are responsible for that. Other choices could have been made. The only thing I know is that animals are unpredictable and sometimes the only thing we can rely on is our instinct.

  • JackConner

    Um, look like the elk just wanted to be pet. If he wanted to take that guy out, he would have.

  • Todd Klassy

    And this moron’s instinct was to sit still and let the animal approach?

    But you made my point. Clearly the animal DID start from a distance. Hence the telephoto lens on location without a lens cap. And judging from his gear, he is anything BUT a National Geographic photographer. He is not a professional. Even professional wildlife photographers would not have allowed this situation to happen. He is a hobbyist, or a part-timer at best. He risked his life by not placing himself in a location that would safely protect himself, and judging from the outcome, the animal.

    I work around wildlife and animals as a vocation (i.e. elk, bison, pronghorn antelope, wild horses, etc.) and it is clear this man was NOT at a respectful distance, because had he been the elk would not have been able to get that close. What he did was wrong. Period.

    And by the way, the fact that he’s appalled also proves he’s a rank amateur. Any professional wildlife photographer knows when dangerous wild animals such as this interact with humans and wildlife officials find out they are going to be put down. Bison, bears, and elk are killed every year because they get too close to humans. Which is sad by itself. But what’s sadder is that in many of those instances the interaction could have been avoided altogether.

    Wild animals are not cute and cuddly. They are wild. They are dangerous. I see crap like this all of the time when I’m photographing in Glacier National Park and Yellowstone. Groups of goons surrounding a grizzly bear cub; not thinking that that the cub’s mamma is near by. Or the family that corners a big horn sheep and then cries when it comes shooting past them and knocks one of them over. Or idiots who walk up to a wild bison using only a tree as cover and not understanding why they are tossed into the air and gored. People are idiots, and seeing stuff like the video above only confirm it. He’s lucky he’s alive and only the elk is dead.