Buffaloes, gentle giants of the plains, return to the National Zoo after a decade


Curator Steve Sarro feeds a bison leaf-eater biscuits in the barn at the Smithsonian's National Zoo on Aug. 21 in Washington. (Yue Wu/The Washington Post)

The queen of the plains has a gooey tongue that feels coarse and muscular when she grabs a biscuit from your fingers.

She has spindly legs beneath her 500-pound bulk that belie her ability to run faster than a horse. She also can swim and use her head as a snowplow. And she has an efficient, four-part stomach for thorough digestion.

The female American bison, newly arrived at the Smithsonian National Zoo, also has the dark face, beard and short horns that have made her a symbol of the vastness, and at one time the folly, of the country.

A giant panda with a popsicle she is not.

On Saturday, as part of its year-long 125th anniversary celebration, the zoo plans to debut its two new female bison — the first the zoo has had on exhibit in more than a decade and the animal on which the zoo was founded in the 1880s.

Two bison are seen in their enclosure at the Smithsonian's National Zoo on Aug. 21 in Washington. (Yue Wu/The Washington Post)

“These are very American animals,” said curator Steve Sarro. “And we’re bringing them back to the nation’s zoo.”

The bison were donated in July by the American Prairie Reserve, a 305,000-acre tract near the Missouri River Breaks area of eastern Montana. The reserve maintains a herd of about 350 bison and 90 calves, said Damien Austin, the reserve supervisor.

In Washington, the zoo has constructed a small but lush pasture where the animals can graze — and be seen.

Technically, the new animals are bison, the largest land animal in North America. Male bison can stand over 6 feet tall at the shoulder and weigh 2,200 pounds. “Buffalo” live only in Africa, the zoo said, but both terms are acceptable.

“We’re very, very excited about them being here,” zoo director Dennis W. Kelly said last week. “It goes to our heritage, and it goes to our mission. We started by trying to save species, and that’s still our mission today.”

The seeds of what would become the National Zoo were sown with bison in the late 1880s when taxidermist-turned-naturalist William Temple Hornaday gathered some for exhibit outside the Smithsonian “castle” on the Mall.

“They are considered the first animals in what would become the zoo’s collection,” said zoo spokeswoman Annalisa Meyer.

Two buffalo in the South Yard behind the Smithsonian Institution Building. They were acquired in 1886 by the Department of Living Animals, which eventually became the National Zoological Park. (Courtesy of the Smithsonian Institution Archives)

The new bison, among the roughly 500,000 that survive today, weigh a little over 500 pounds each and are about a year old, curator Sarro said.

The zoo has two others, which once were on exhibit but were moved to the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute in Front Royal, Va., about 11 or 12 years ago, Sarro said.

The new bison were acquired from Montana, in part, because of their genetic purity, he said. “Some of the bison that are around do have some domestic cattle blood in them,” he said.

“They’re incredible animals,” Sarro said. “They’re all head and husky shoulders. The head they actually use for defending each other, fighting with each other, competing for females with each other.”

“They also use that head for grazing in the winter,” he said. “They use it as a snowplow” to reach grasses buried under snowfall.

Zoo officials will announce the names of the bison on Wednesday.

Howard and Gallaudet universities, which both have the bison as a mascot, were asked to come up with names. Howard’s student body president, Leighton Watson, and Gallaudet’s student body president, Andrew Morrill, are set to unveil their selections in a ceremony at the zoo.

During the 1800s, the once mighty bison population of 30 million to 60 million that extended from the Appalachians to Alaska was slaughtered until just a few hundred animals were left, the zoo said.

The impact was devastating to the buffalo and the environment, the zoo said, but it was a calamity for Native Americans, who depended on the buffalo for food, clothing, shelter and spiritual sustenance.

For generations, native people on the Great Plains had followed the buffalo on the animals’ migrations, said Emil Her Many Horses, a curator at the National Museum of the American Indian.

Indians used dried buffalo dung to make fires, he said. They used buffalo ribs to make children’s sleds. They used buffalo hooves to make glue.

A Lakota Indian creation story describes humans emerging from the earth naked and cold and spirits teaching the people to use the buffalo for shelter and warmth, Her Many Horses, a Lakota, said.

“It’s really embedded in our origin story,” he said.

The eradication of the buffalo was, in part, aimed at repression of the Indian, the zoo said.

“I would not seriously regret the total disappearance of the buffalo from our western plains, in its effect upon the Indians,” Secretary of the Interior Columbus Delano wrote in 1873, according to the zoo.

“The eradication of the bison was a military and social policy directed at the Native Americans, and we’re still living with those consequences today,” Kelly, the zoo director, said last week.

It was Hornaday who came to the aid of the buffalo. He had become horrified by their near extermination.

It came as “a severe shock, as if by a blow on the head from a well-directed mallet,” he wrote, according to the zoo. “I awoke, dazed and stunned, to a sudden realization . . . that the buffalo-hide hunters . . . had practically finished their work.”

It was “a disgrace to the American people,” he wrote. “It will cause succeeding generations to regard us as being possessed of the leading characteristics of the savage and the beast of prey — cruelty and greed.”

He became dedicated to their preservation and in 1889 published a manifesto, “The Extermination of the American Bison.” He also lobbied for a national zoo as place to preserve them.

On the American Prairie Reserve, where the new bison were acquired, Austin, the supervisor, described them as “the gentle giants on the prairie, moving across the grass.”

“One of the most enjoyable parts of my job is the time in and around the bison herd observing behavior,” he said.

“They’re an American icon,” he said. “We feel very lucky to be involved in the project to draw attention to the conservation efforts and the conservation that’s still needed to bring the bison back to a glimmer of their former glory.”

Mike is a general assignment reporter who also covers Washington institutions and historical topics.
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