By Dedra Cordle
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 first hand 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, explained naturalist Debbie Ruppersburg, is “They are not our park pets.”
Having been 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, most largely discussed in good fun, the park began offering a ‘behind-the-scenes’ look at the care of the bison for the past three years. Since that time, over 300 visitors have taken part in the program that shows firsthand 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 in its wake.
With the temptation of hay – Ruppersburg never dispelled 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.”
With its high wooden panels and maze-like structure, some humans, much like the bison, did not find the space to be on their liking.
“I can see why they hate it here,” said one visitor.
For the next 10 minutes, Klever explained what some of the contraptions are used for and said they will be putting them to test soon as they check to see whether there will be an increase of the bison herd 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.”
But however testy they can be, Klever said he would not trade this experience for anything.
“Not many people get to work with a wild animal as majestic as the bison,” he explained.
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.