(Posted Jan. 10, 2018)
By Dedra Cordle, Staff Writer
How do you care for a bison?
The staff at Battelle Darby Creek Metro Park attempted to answer that question at a Jan. 7 behind-the-scenes event. Many people attended to get a firsthand look at the herd, but had their own ideas about the daily life of the bison who were reintroduced to the park in 2011.
“They spend their days and nights being pampered,” one visitor said.
“They live in the barn and only come out for treats,” another implied.
“They are only seen when the park workers want them to be seen” whispered another visitor.
But the truth is, said naturalist Debbie Ruppersburg, “They are not our park pets.”
With the park since 2008, Ruppersburg was there for the arrival of the six female bison nearly seven years ago and has heard all of the rumors about the alleged pampered treatment of the bison.
To help dispel some of the rumors, largely discussed in good fun, the park began offering behind-the-scenes looks three years ago. Since that time, over 300 visitors have taken part in the program that shows how the park workers interact with the bison.
“I think people are always surprised to learn how hands-off we are,” Ruppersburg said. “As a naturalist, my role in the bison’s care is to discuss their history, talk about conservation and diversity, and interpret their behavior for educational programs for the public. And that is about as far as it goes.”
There are those, however, that are able to take a more interactive approach.
As nearly 100 visitors participating in the latest behind-the-scenes program began the slow, snowy trek to the barn, park technician John Klever hopped into an RTV, drove around a bit and waited. He didn’t have to wait long until the herd of bison, seven females and one visiting male, began following him.
With the temptation of hay–Ruppersburg didn’t dispel the rumor that the bison get the occasional treat–Klever led the bison to the gate closest to the parking lot near the nature center to give the visitors a better glimpse of the largest land mammal in North America.
Possibly knowing that they had a crowd, the bison preened for the cameras and the male tossed some hay into the air. All looked rather disappointed when it was clear Klever was not leading them to their summer pasture.
“They’re stuck in their winter lodgings for a couple more months,” he said, not referring to a warm barn, but to the more than 30 acres available behind the nature center where they spend the autumn and winter months.
With the bison passively watching, Klever led the humans to the least enjoyable place where they roam–the chute area and then the barn where they are given annual examination and inoculations.
“They hate this place,” he said with a smile. “Sometimes we do, too, when they get really rowdy.”
The area features high wooden panels and a maze-like structure.
“I can see why they hate it here,” said one visitor.
For the next 10 minutes, Klever explained how some of the contraptions are used and said the staff will be putting them to test soon as they check to see whether the bison herd will increase come spring.
He called that time the most stressful time for the workers.
“The bison are very protective of the newborns,” he said. “They’re frisky on a normal day, but when you include the newborns, it’s a whole new ballgame.”
However testy the bison can be, Klever said he would not trade the experience for anything.
“Not many people get to work with a wild animal as majestic as the bison,” he said.
And he did stress the wild animal part.
“They’re pretty self-sufficient here,” he said.
But the rumors surrounding the bison’s individual personalities persist and neither Ruppersburg nor Klever could dispel those.
“They’re very spirited,” admitted Ruppersburg.
Just don’t call them pampered.