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Tony Funk finds it is the struggle—and elk—that define Wayne County
By Jason W. Selby
Jun 2, 2014, 11:12

A bull elk poses at the Corydon Lake after taking a swim. Photo by Jason Selby
Tony Funk has worked as an EMT for Wayne County Hospital for 16 years. He is also the proud new owner of several elk that graze on brush and broad leaves near Corydon Lake.

“Elk were native here a long time ago,” Funk says.

In the late 1980s, elk came back to Corydon after a hiatus. Funk does not want to see them leave again, for a number of reasons.

Corydon, as opposed to a metropolitan area such as Des Moines, is punished because it is small. It must fight for the funds necessary to sustain itself. Sometimes it must beat its own path to get things done. Funk believes this fight defines Corydon and what it means to live in a small town.

“That’s part of our community,” Funk says. “We need to fix it. I’m sure that the people working on the light poles are saying the same thing. If we don’t do it right today, when will we have time to fix what we [messed] up?

“Good things in life don’t always come easy. I used to run an incubator. I raised thousands of quail and pheasants. You see one that’s having a rough time hatching, and you can break the shell open and take the chick out and dry it off. And it will be a cripple. Its legs will never be quite straight. Its wings will never work right. It has to have the struggle of getting out of the shell to stimulate its muscles. Either it will make it and be something useful, or it will die. The same with a butterfly. If you help it out of that cocoon, its wings will never straighten out.

“People in communities are the same way. The ones that have to struggle eventually get up and fly away. And the ones that get everything handed to them rot from the inside out.”

Funk has dealt with animals all of his life. Someone once brought him an injured fawn, and he raised it in his home. She roughhoused with his dogs, and would stick her head out the upstairs windows when she heard his pickup drive in.

“Trust me, you can housebreak a deer. Incredibly intelligent animals, and elk are the same way. They’re a wild animal—you don’t ever want to forget it because they’ll kill you.

“They’re so intelligent, so fun to work with and they were here to begin with. I’m not a tree-hugger—they’re delicious meat—I would prefer an elk or buffalo steak over beef steak, and I raise all three. I’ve always enjoyed working with wild animals.

“I don’t want to be branded as public-minded, but I don’t think anyone really has a handle on the financial advantage that it gives the City of Corydon—people come and they watch those elk, and they come from all over. And [the tourists] also use our park, because it’s right there. [I could] take them home and put them in my own pen—back in the middle of nowhere, and nobody sees them—but that doesn’t contribute to Wayne County. It’s obvious that I like Corydon. I like southern Iowa. I’ve seen things that I don’t like, but the thing to do is to get in gear and do something about it.

“When the first elk came back to Wayne County, I was on the [Pathfinders] RC&D board at Centerville. It was actually Chuck McCarty’s brainchild. The very first animals that came, I took my truck and my brother’s trailer and went to Valentine, Neb. to [Fort Niobrara National Wildlife Refuge Complex]. There were two cows and a bull that were given us by the federal government for this elk project.

“These animals came back to Lake Miami, and they already had a deer pen built up. We unloaded those elk there, went back a year later and got three more and brought back. Those animals went to Sharon Bluffs in Centerville. From Lake Miami, animals were made available to all four counties, if they wanted them. The conservation board in Lucas County didn’t take any. We did, Appanoose County did and Monroe County already had.”

Funk transported the elk to Corydon. Eventually, they traded with Jester Park northwest of Des Moines for a different heifer to get new blood. Sage, the original bull, developed an abscess and died. Funk furnished the bull currently in the pen from his own herd. That bull is around 13 years old.

“The animals out here, I’ve helped with ever since they were first put here,” Funk says. “Anytime something needs tranquilized, I’ve got the equipment.”

Funk received a certificate in wildlife anesthesia and tranquilization from Purdue University in West Lafayette, Ind. He graduated from Mormon Trail Community High School in 1970, having moved from a dairy farm near Peoria, Ill. in 1967. He lives with his wife, Eileen, around a mile south of Garden Grove. They have hosted 38 foster children over the years, and adopted five of them legally, and they claim two others, as well, along with many grandchildren.

He estimates refurbishment of the pen would cost around $15,000. The City of Corydon is interested in beginning a donation fund for upkeep.

“The fence down here at the elk pen was put in by Carol Palmer and his brother,” Funk says. “It was built in that timeframe. If it needs repair, it’s because it’s that old. It was done well, but posts rot off.”

Part of the land the elk roam is owned by the city, part by East Penn Manufacturing. Funk indicates Mark Winslow is always willing to help when it comes to the animals. Corydon Mayor Rod Parham is also a big proponent of keeping the elk in town.

Funk is also appreciative of Wayne County Conservation Director Bonnie Friend.

“I don’t have anything to say about that lady but good. She is trying so hard on such a limited budget. She impresses me.

“Realistically, you can buy all the materials right here in Wayne County. Bob Dodson says that the only way to fence is to put in an oil well casing. He can tell you to the thousandth of an inch how much it rusts per year. He makes a pretty good argument that the life of that pipe is close to twice that of a wood post.”

Dodson proposes planting each post five feet deep, with nine feet in the air, and to situate a bluebird box on top.

“I like that idea,” Funks says. “My vision for it is to keep them right there—if anything, to enhance the pen.”

Funk would like to add a bull bison and four bison cows. Bison graze on grass, while elk can manage tougher weeds, and the combination would help maintain the grounds. It would also add to the income brought in by the pen.

“[Bison and elk] coexisted in Iowa for thousands of years before the white man came,” Funk says. “Not only do they coexist, but when you talk to people who actually understand, the elk have a small, pointed nose—they utilize more of the broad leaves and what we call weeds. The term for it is choice concentrate utilizer. The buffalo have more of a nose like cattle, wide, more of a grazing animal and utilize more of the grasses themselves.

“My intention is to leave them there permanently and take offspring. Nothing in life is permanent, but as long as it works for the city and East Penn.

“If you sit there and watch for a little bit, it’s amazing how many people—every day—come by to see the elk or to give them a slice of bread. It’s amazing how many children I’ve handed a slice a bread and called a cow up and let them hand-feed them through the fence. I like working with kids. And there you go, that’s a combination—if you can teach children something about animals.

“If people have concerns about the elk, or see something they don’t like—you need to call me or call the sheriff’s office and tell them there’s a problem.”

Funk would prefer people feed the elk a small portion of bread, or an apple or pear, so that they don’t get overfed. If a visitor wants something more than looking from the outside in, it is best to give Funk a phone call first.

“Corydon has something people would love to have but don’t have. A lot of us take it for granted. I’m still 18 on the inside. I woke up one morning and I was 62. It’s time for me to be giving back. It’s time for me to give what I can to the community.”

Funk knows why things rot. It is the struggle—and a few elk—that has formed the town of Corydon, and will sustain Wayne County in the future.

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