Mr. T Goes to Oklahoma
Bison are inherently wild animals. We may train them, feed them, corral them and even haul them down the roads of our very civilized world, but they are still wild.
I recently had the opportunity to take some of our bison to restock a beautiful ranch in extreme SE Oklahoma (virtually all new herds are a restocking project when viewed through a historical lens!). This well-cared for piece of land has a very substantial fence around its many thousands of mountainous acres, and as such, the owner wanted to get started with older animals instead of the much more usual, and relatively carefree, route of stocking with calves.
I guess I figured life was getting a little boring here on the ranch, so I accepted the challenge.
This episode stars a mature bison bull I’ll call Mr. T. Mr. T weighs about 2000 lbs. and is full of life. My task was to convince him to get into the squeeze chute so I could restrain him and insert a government required tag on his right ear. Mr. T wanted nothing to do with this human idea of repopulating SE Oklahoma and all the hassle that comes with a change of residence. He didn’t like my corrals. He didn’t like being fed my hay. He didn’t like drinking water so close to the house, and he especially didn’t like me. All he wanted was to be back out on the range here in Kansas, hanging with his buddies and doing whatever he pleased. I wanted him safely transported to Oklahoma.
The stage was set. The battle lines were drawn.
We got to know each other very, very well in very, very close quarters. It wasn’t a warm, fuzzy kind of relationship. It was a pairing of two individuals from vastly different and opposing species. One is an amazing athlete with unbelievable speed and power and the other, not so much so, but blessed with the human mind. We were both equally determined. And as the old saying goes – “there is nothing as hard-headed as a buffalo – except a buffalo rancher”!
After five days and five nights of virtual non-stop human trickery and mind games, I finally got him into the squeeze chute. The tag was applied. Mr. T was very upset at this loss but reached into his ancient well of strength and redoubled his efforts to persevere and regain his freedom from my confounded corrals and my unwanted association.
My next task was to train him to take a hard right turn at a critical spot in the corrals and in so doing be trained to run up into the trailer. I made good progress here – or so I thought.
The fateful day arrived. The nerves of one man and one beast were wound tight. The trailer was staged. Who would win? Would equipment be damaged? Would he really load? Would someone get hurt? Would a body die?
It took over an hour to convince Mr. T to load onto the trailer and stand in the special compartment we welded up for him. This compartment was especially made to keep him separate from the cows that would be traveling with him. It is not uncommon for older bulls to snap and brutalize anything within their reach – including their herd mates. They can easily kill a full-grown cow and it was my responsibility to prevent injury.
To latch the gate in this special compartment required a precision choreography of swinging steel, carefully draped tarps, perfectly dangled chains, and a meticulously plotted escape route for me. Once he loaded, Plan A promptly failed. His brute force snapped the rope attached to the gate of his special compartment. My escape (I’m in the trailer with him at this time) was hindered by my own earlier neglect of not unlatching the only gate I could hide behind. I kept my nerves as calm as I could so I didn’t fumble the latches and waste time. I made it to the relative safety behind the gate just in time. He was hunting me!
Plan B (the tarps) got him back in his hole – ever so slowly and carefully. Inches at a time, he slowly backed into his compartment. Then, I gingerly hid behind the tarp and got one chain latched with my sorting stick and carefully latched two more chains without breaking an arm. At this point, the man seemed to be winning this ancient struggle!
The cows loaded well and everyone settled down for the long ride to their new home.
At unloading time, Mr. T saw me walking outside the trailer and figured now was as good a time as any to let me know that he may be loaded but he’s not tame! Without warning, he ran a horn through the super heavy-duty sidewall of the trailer and ripped it open like a sardine can. He stood there and glared at me through his new, self-made opening. His point was well made. There is no room for ego, pride or sloppiness when handling such beasts. It’s all focus and serious business and I had better be extra careful as the job was not yet done!
A few more tricks of the trade were used to get unloaded and I can now say that Mr. T is in Oklahoma with a beautiful harem of cows, roaming land that hasn’t been trod by a buffalo hoof for maybe 150 years. He’s yet as wild and free as he has ever been and maybe he now enjoys it even a little more so. It took all 30 years of my bison experience to get Mr. T to Oklahoma and I’m not sure if I’ll sign up for that again!
Raising bison is a true pioneering work. It’s a rare instance in human history that a new specie makes the transition from an unwanted wild hinderance to a valuable and cared-for creature. We keepers of the bison are in process of making history and if it were easy, everybody would be doing it!
Long Live King Bison!