The Bison in the Park

A couple of months ago at my Sunday morning activity, the platform talk included a heartwarming story of a baby bunny in front of a car that was happily moved to a neighborhood park. With a focus on nurturing our own inner-baby-bunny-rescuer, the address included a reference to, as I understood it, the important part being our own roles as baby bunny rescuers more so than on how the baby bunny is doing now.

I do agree that we all need to nurture the nurturing parts of ourselves. At the same time, if we want to have an actual positive impact on baby bunnies, it would behoove us to learn what is good or bad for baby bunnies and whether we are actually helping them. (The same goes for anyone we are trying to help, and in the case of people, involves listening to what the person or group of people needs.)

By no means am I an expert on baby bunnies, but based on what I have seen of baby bunnies from growing up in suburbia, I imagine that this particular baby bunny is currently hopping around a park where it will grow up, breed like rabbits, and have baby bunnies of its own – a happy ending to the baby bunny story.

My congregation seemed to love the baby bunny story, but being the cynic I am, all I could think of was the baby bison story. The tale of the Canadian tourists who found a baby bison in Yellowstone National Park earlier this year and put it in their SUV because “it looked cold” initially read like an example of humans bumbling around, interfering in the animal world, and thus causing the animal’s unnecessary death (and my plan was to write about it that way, as a story very similar to the gorilla story I recently explored). I could only imagine that the people in the baby bunny story and the people in the baby bison story had equally good intentions when they tried to rescue the respective baby critters.

The Yellowstone visitors brought the bison calf (which was a member of the species recently designated the United States national mammal, American bison) to a park ranger. As the story was first reported, the rangers tried to reintroduce the calf to the herd, and it was rejected by the mother because it now had the smell of humans on it. The public outcry against the park visitors was swift and harsh.

Then these tourists spoke up, along with a photographer who frequents Yellowstone and had seen the bison calf before. The new information presented indicates that the baby bison had already been separated from its mother and herd when the tourists found it, not just looking cold, but shivering in a parking lot alone and standing near cars to try to get some warmth. It was not, as previously suggested, rejected after the fact due to the human scent.

So why did the bison calf have to be euthanized, rather than brought to an animal sanctuary somewhere to be cared for in the absence of its bison mother?

In a comment on one of its own Facebook posts, Yellowstone National Park wrote:

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.

Many comments on other news articles mentioned the possibility that the bison calf’s mother had deliberately abandoned her offspring because she knew it was sick or weak, so that she could thus focus her resources on ensuring the survival of her fittest. The comment from Yellowstone above is the most that I have been able to find, from any official source, corroborating the possibility that a mother bison would abandon her calf before – rather than because of – human involvement.

People became more sympathetic to the misguided tourists after reading these new developments, but some still blamed the visitors for interfering with the ecosystem of Yellowstone. Had nature taken its course, the lone bison calf would have been food for the wolves or coyotes that also make up part of the park’s living collection.

Yellowstone is concerned not about individual organisms (“Nor is it the mission of the National Park Service to rescue animals”) but about the ecosystem as a whole and has had to cull the bison herds (i.e. kill some bison) at times in order to maintain a stable bison population in the park.   (In news more recent than the baby bison story, the animals are at the center of a lawsuit just filed by three wildlife protection groups against the Department of the Interior and United States Fish and Wildlife Service for allegedly failing to protect Yellowstone bison in accordance with the Endangered Species Act.)

Although I would love to visit Yellowstone National Park someday, I really do not know if I could handle seeing an abandoned bison calf shivering alone, or being descended upon by predators. It would break my bleeding, animal-loving heart. It makes sense that at an evolutionary level, genes are paramount (hence, the possibility of a mother abandoning a calf she knows won’t survive so that she can focus her attention on other offspring) and that at an ecological level, ecosystems are paramount (hence, the National Park Service allowing a natural ecosystem to thrive, with members of one species serving as food for another species). My ideal would be for individual sentient beings to be paramount, but I don’t make the rules.

Religious thought has addressed this question, to the extent it has done so at all, in different ways. Biblical references to a future peaceable kingdom, in which no animal needs to kill another animal in order to survive, are the inspiration for the famous painting by Edward Hicks who was not only a painter but also a Quaker preacher. I found a number of webpages by Young Earth Creationists, such as this one, pronouncing that there was also a past peaceable kingdom, and it was only after Adam and Eve’s sin that any animals became carnivorous. In a column on a website devoted to the teachings of Kriya Yoga, the question “Why do animals suffer?” is answered, in part:

When animals experience pain, usually it’s simply nature taking its course: the animal has an accident or gets attacked by another animal. Neither ego nor karma nor torture is involved; instinct rules the animal world, and they are locked into a fixed progression of expanding consciousness….they are not as attached to their bodies as humans are, so they do not suffer as much as humans do when bad things happen to them.

The baby bison story would not have had a happy ending for the baby bison, whether the Canadian tourists had involved themselves or not. The circle of life, the food chain, ecosystems – whatever you want to call it – is one of the content areas a park like Yellowstone can help visitors learn about, but it is an admittedly difficult one for me to wrap my head around.

About Laura

Paralegal with Master of Arts in Teaching in Museum Education, frequent museum visitor, based in Washington, DC. I care about what museums can do, both in terms of public offerings and internal practices, to make the world a better place. I blog about museum education ("informed"), the social work of museums ("humane"), and visitor experience ("citizenry").
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