Everything expressed below is my opinion only and doesn’t represent any position on behalf of the National Park Service or any other entity, cited or otherwise.
Let’s talk about that bison calf.
Don’t know what I’m talking about? From a press release out of Yellowstone National Park today:
In recent weeks, visitors in the park have been engaging in inappropriate, dangerous, and illegal behavior with wildlife. These actions endanger people and have now resulted in the death of a newborn bison calf.
Last week in Yellowstone National Park, visitors were cited for placing a newborn bison calf in their vehicle and transporting it to a park facility because of their misplaced concern for the animal’s welfare. In terms of human safety, this was a dangerous activity because adult animals are very protective of their young and will act aggressively to defend them. In addition, interference by people can cause mothers to reject their offspring. In this case, park rangers tried repeatedly to reunite the newborn bison calf with the herd. These efforts failed. The bison calf was later euthanized because it was abandoned and causing a dangerous situation by continually approaching people and cars along the roadway.
You can read the entire release here, and they cite other instances just in the last few weeks of humans getting way too close to these animals. From viral videos of people trying to touch bison to concern over an “abandoned and cold” calf, humans have gone way beyond crossing a proverbial line.
So what’s going on exactly?
Personally I think a combination of the desire for viral phenomena as well as a pure lack of real education about wildlife and our environment have created a hotbed for bad behavior. The strange thing about wanting to be a viral phenomenon is that almost nobody is going to remember your name afterward. Think about the last viral video or meme you saw: can you say the username of the person who made it? How about their actual name? No? That’s because it’s a flash in the pan situation. You’ll remember the blue and black dress (or is it white and gold??) but not the woman who wore it. That’s not a Thing that really needs to be Fixed so much as that people need to take a step back and ask why they’re really filming/photographing/recording something that may cost them (or an animal) their life.
And now we come to the bison calf.
One of the biggest reactions I saw when I started looking into this article is that people don’t understand why the calf had to be put down instead of being hand reared or even taken to a zoo. While I don’t know enough detail in this specific case, I can give you what my general impressions are from the press release and offer my best explanation based on my previous experience with zoos, wildlife sanctuaries, etc.
- The bison calf wasn’t going back to its mother. This is a problem for many reasons. The main reason is that it is a young herd animal that needs its mother and the rest of the herd to feed it, protect it, and generally teach it how to be a bison. Without being part of the group, the calf was at risk for starvation, predation, injury or death simply from being alone. That’s the thing about herd animals– they need the herd to survive. That’s how they function.
- The bison calf was approaching humans. This is very dangerous for the calf and for the humans. The calf was at risk of being hit by a car (and hitting a large animal with a car can be deadly for the humans involved, too!) as well as not getting the food and protection and other things provided by the herd. Humans just can’t do that. Not only that, but having a young bison near humans might A) attract other bison, including the mother, to be near humans (and bison are dangerous) and B) might contribute to disease being spread. Many many many of the weird strains of flu and other viruses come from humans being too close to wild animals. This calf was probably A-Okay, but it’s still not a good idea.
- The bison calf was born in the wild to a specific wild herd. This is probably the number one reason the calf couldn’t go to a zoo or other sanctuary. As I said before, bison are herd animals and the calf needed a herd, but it wasn’t going back to its own. The calf would be hard pressed at best to join another herd in a zoo or sanctuary, and at worst would be outright rejected, leaving it in a yet more vulnerable situation.
- The bison calf might pose a health risk to other bison. In addition, if the calf were carrying any diseases or pathogens, even ones that are normal and healthy in a wild herd, it could decimate a different population that has been bred and raised in a zoo. With bison considered “stable, but near threatened” according to the IUCN, populations in captivity shouldn’t be put at risk for a single individual.
So let’s get some wildlife watching education.
There are a few general guidelines to follow that will help keep wildlife watching safe for you and the animals. Here are some tips!
- Do not approach wildlife for any reason. Think an animal is injured? Call a professional, be it a park ranger, a wildlife help hotline (really, those exist! I have a bird person and a small mammal person in my contact list), or even your local SPCA. They will ask you some questions to understand the situation and, if needed, come assess things. You aren’t an expert, even if you’ve seen a lot of Discovery Channel. Especially don’t approach large animals. Many parks have posted signs or regulations as well. In this case, there is a 25 yard minimum distance you must keep between yourself and the bison. Anything closer is breaking federal law and you could go to jail. Surely an instagram photo isn’t worth that. Oh, and bison? They have horns. That can gore you. That’s right, gore. Don’t believe me? Google “bison gore risk” and see what you find.
- Do not feed wildlife. This means ducks and seagulls, too. I know it’s tempting to feed birds and other wildlife. I know how much it makes your kids happy. It is not healthy for the animals, no matter how “hungry” they seem. I could write a whole other post about this, but the biggest take away is that birds and other animals are not adapted to survive on human food. Bread and bread products are particularly bad for them, causing obesity and diabetes in animals that shouldn’t ever encounter it. Think about how unhealthy our modern diets are, and you want to give that stuff to a bird? Not to mention you’re changing natural behavior and disrupting a food chain, and possibly an entire ecosystem. Don’t be that disruption.
- Do not move baby animals. Even if they look abandoned. Even if you think they might be injured. (See above.) Animal parents will often leave their young in a tucked away, camouflaged area while they go to look for food, or to try and lure larger potential predators away from the young. This doesn’t mean humans won’t occasionally stumble across this type of scenario. In every case, do not move the baby animal. Do not touch the baby animal. The parent is probably nearby, but moving the youngster may make it impossible for the parent to find it again, even if you’ve only moved it a few feet. Remember that the parent chose this location for its offspring and doesn’t think like a human would. Even touching the animal can cause harm, and not because the “scent of humans* scares away the parents.” This comes down to injury and disease again. You don’t know what germs you both might be carrying, or how to handle baby wildlife if you are not an expert. And here’s the thing– experts will only touch a baby animal as a last resort.**
- Do take photos from a safe distance. Photos are a great way to remember what you saw, where you saw it, and share with others! They can also help you identify specific species you might not know. I photograph birds and reptiles all the time so I can take the pictures home and look them up online or in my wildlife guides. I can’t tell you the number of cool species I’ve seen, and only realized it because I had the foresight to photograph them for identification! Photos are also fun to share with rangers, who are usually interested in what animals are where in the park. It can even help build conservation knowledge about the animals to know where they are at certain times. The key is to stay at a safe distance. Don’t know what that is? Google is your friend, and park staff can give you good guidelines!
- Do keep food in safe containers or locations when camping. And no your car is not a “safe” location– bears can break into cars like you bust into a can of baked beans. By keeping food where animals can’t get to it, you are not motivating them to come hang out where humans are. Not only does this preserve everyone’s safety, but it could save the animals’ lives: human food can make them sick and nuisance animals (i.e. animals that come too close, posing a health and safety risk to people) often have to be relocated or euthanized.
- Do your research. This is huge, and relatively easy– if you’re going to be in an area with wildlife, just read up on what you might encounter. Look for official park websites, talk to park staff or rangers, even chat with someone at a zoo or aquarium who can tell you about animals in specific places. There is a huge amount of information out there, just waiting for you!
- Do share this information with your friends! One of the biggest problems we face is that people lack education about wildlife, so become an animal advocate! Explain to your friends and family why it’s not a good idea to feed bread to ducks at the local park or why you aren’t going to move that baby deer at the edge of the woods. It will take time and a lot of effort, but the more we can spread the word about how to interact with wildlife, the more animal (and human!) lives can be saved. Don’t let this bison calf die in vain.
So there you have it. I hope this has been helpful for folks searching for answers about what happened to the little bison and why it “couldn’t just be put in a zoo.” It can be hard to see the bigger picture sometimes, but often taking a step back makes a big difference.
Got any other animals in the news you want to ask me about? I’ll give you my take!
[UPDATE: 5/16/16 1:20pm]
From Yellowstone National Park’s Facebook page:
Thanks to everyone who’s taken the time to read this post and share our safety messages. We’re reading through your comments and noticed many people asking why the calf had to be euthanized.
In order to ship the calf out of the park, it would have had to go through months of quarantine to be monitored for brucellosis. No approved quarantine facilities exist at this time, and we don’t have the capacity to care for a calf that’s too young to forage on its own. Nor is it the mission of the National Park Service to rescue animals: our goal is to maintain the ecological processes of Yellowstone. Even though humans were involved in this case, it is not uncommon for bison, especially young mothers, to lose or abandon their calves. Those animals typically die of starvation or predation.
*It’s a myth that birds won’t take care of their young if a human touches it, but use this knowledge with caution! If you know what nest the baby bird fell from, use a washcloth to touch it as little and as gently as possible, and put it back. If you do not know, there’s a better than good chance that baby is learning to fly and its parents are nearby watching. If the baby is still there a day later, call a local bird rescue and ask for advice.
**I think it’s important to note that sometimes experts do touch baby wildlife, or even adult animals, for scientific research and conservation purposes. This is usually a tagging situation, where they need to track an individual or population to help keep it healthy or to study its range in order to better understand and protect it. Think of California condors– many of them were tagged as chicks to help keep track– but the experts know the proper way to do this with the least stress and risk to the animals involved. You and I are not those experts.