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January 4, 2011

When my grandson was visiting a short while ago, I took him to see the buffaloes at Fort Whyte Alive, a former quarry now a nature reserve in the city. I know, I know, there are no “buffaloes” in North America. They are BISON. But my grandson is three. Like many three-year-olds, he has trouble with his r’s and l’s. I just love to hear him say Buffayoes!
The 500-acre buffayo enclosure we visited is a far cry from the crummy zoos of my childhood. Seneca Park Zoo in Rochester, New York was a jail. Sally the Elephant’s space was barely 20 x 20 feet of concrete, cinder blocks and bars. Sally was chained by one foot to an iron clasp in the middle of the room. One day she got mad as hell and crushed her keeper. She was executed for the offense – which many of us saw as justifiable homicide.
I only found out that there was another zoo as a result of Sally’s death. Or rather her interment. When I worked road construction, the boss would send us to “visit Sally’s grave” (i.e., hide) whenever the weather got too bad for us to work. The road gang had buried Sally in a secret place – right near a deep gully about 100 X 40 yards with a high fence that kept a couple of elk, a handful of skinny deer, and one miserable, shaggy, old bison. He was the first one I ever saw.
If you stomped your feet and uttered a few deep woofs, that bison would charge the rickety fence. We would wait until some young women approached the fence, stomp and woof, and see how high pitched their screams would get and how fast they could run. Ah, the joys of teenage hormones!
It’s said that there were once up to 75 million Plains Bison in the middle of North America. By the middle of the nineteenth century only about half of them remained. Still there were enough that when Sitting Bull left Canada to surrender to the US army in 1881, he rode through a single continuous herd for nine straight days.
Millions of bison, the ninth largest land animal in the world, used to graze the prairies of Manitoba. But size and numbers could not save them from people bent on simple slaughter. In 1895, Ernest Thomson Seton, the great Manitoba naturalist, could count only 800 in the province. Shortly thereafter, their numbers dwindled to 500 on the entire continent.
Now there are more than twice that number in our province (some of them actually wild) and over half a million in North America. But their numbers owe more to bison ranching than to conservation.
They are truly impressive beasts. When my grandson and I visited, it was a blustery cold day with almost a foot of snow on the ground. Great snorts of breath blasted from their nostrils, and they rooted for grass by shagging away the snow with their great triangular heads. I could see why their heads hang lower than almost any other animal. They evolved to graze efficiently on prairie grasses. Too bad there’s so little left.
I got my grandson to stomp his little feet and woof, but the buffayoes paid no attention to us.

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