Yesterday morning I drove over to Land Between the Lakes in Kentucky in order to work at the South Bison Range for a few hours. The herd there needed their inoculations and anthelmintics, and some of the members needed new ear tags. Originally, we were told that we would be assisting with blood collection, so I was somewhat disappointed to find out that we would only be there in order to observe (for five hours), but overall, it was an amazing experience for which I am grateful.
Myself and others from my lab classes arrived at 7:00am and had a brief safety lecture before heading out to the field (which was in Tennessee). The air was warm and muggy, but the wind kept it crisp and cooler, though I rather would have wanted it cold and dry than warmish and wet. The sky was a bright, formless grey which made it difficult to get decent photographs -- I've never been very adept at shooting in the shade; I've always preferred harsher sunlight.
I was quite struck by their capacity for facial expression. This was the closest by far that I have ever been to bison, close enough to some that I could have touched their faces. Their eyes were bright, rich browns, and goat-like. Their brows conveyed emotion that I could only interpret as surprise, worry, anxiety, anger, boredom, and relief. It was easy to tell the older members who had been through the process many times before, from the younger ones who had still not accepted the situation.
He was most likely terrified, and I felt so sympathetic toward him, but I couldn't help but appreciate how limber he was. In fact, I could not believe how limber they all were, even the largest adults. They could jump straight up in the air, change direction running so quickly. They were moving in ways more flexible than any horse I've ever seen, and had a deer-like quality to their movements that I had not expected. When they were released from the paddocks, they loped with a smooth gracefulness that reminded me of bears or giraffes.
I also fell in love with their coats. They had a texture to them that I wanted to feel so badly. I imagined it almost as rough as quills on the outside, but a softer layer underneath, like down. They displayed so many colors in their coats, with the most attractive being a black-faced individual of whom I was not able to get a photograph. But nothing was as impressive to me as those goat-like eyes, especially the largest bull in the herd:
When he was brought into the paddock, he showed no fear or apprehension to us onlookers. He walked right to the edge of the fence and watched all of us, with a very serious calm that I immediately respected. He was like the Great Prince of the Forest in Bambi, a wise elder who had made a certain peace with Life. I think I'm personifying this animal far beyond what I should, but locking eyes with such an enormous creature (I estimate his shoulder height was 6.5-7 feet, and he weighed over 1600 lbs, if I remember correctly) was sublime in its own small way. It was one of my favorite moments of the day, and I can understand completely now why such animals have been considered sacred for centuries. And I believe they understand it as well: it can be seen in their elders' eyes, in the ways they carry themselves. I feel completely fortunate to have witnessed it.
Oh, give me a home where the Buffalo roam,
where the Deer and the Antelope play,
where seldom is heard a discouraging word,
and the sky is not cloudy all day.
I never really appreciated those words before, but I do now.
|Young bison, animated .gif made by myself.|