Wilma the American bison kicks up her heels and tosses her husky, horned head as she dashes into her grassy pasture. She turns to look for the other half of her herd, another young bison named Zora. It’s as if Wilma is asking, “What are you waiting for?”
Zora enters the enclosure with a little more caution, peering in with her head down and her eyes open wide. Her glossy horns stick out to the side more than Wilma’s — it’s the best way to tell them apart. Soon Wilma and Zora stand side by side and lower their massive, shaggy heads to the ground to graze. Over and over again, they rip dewy blades of green Bermuda grass to munch on. Eventually they lie down for a rest.
The pair are the newest residents at the National Zoo, which debuted the animals Saturday. Bison haven’t been at the zoo for many years, but visitors would have seen them there in 1891.
“Bison were one of the first animals here at the zoo,” says Smithsonian National Zoo curator Steve Sarro. “We’re planning on these two girls to be the start of our bison herd. They are awesome animals.”
Earlier this summer, Wilma and Zora traveled 2,000 miles in a horse trailer from the American Prairie Reserve, a huge wildlife refuge in northeastern Montana, where they were part of a wild herd. At 500 pounds each, they are about half the size they’ll be once they’re full grown at 4 or 5 years old.
Handlers in Montana confined the young cows to a group of four animals before their journey, to help the pair adjust to life in a smaller herd.
“The biggest challenge as a herd animal is to get over the separation from the group,” reserve supervisor Damien Austin explains. “We had lots of volunteers helping to [get the bison used] to being around people.”
The young bison have gotten so accustomed to their handlers at the zoo that they happily nibble snacks such as apples, carrots and special “leaf-eater” biscuits out of their hands.
“It’s fun interacting with them and having them come up to us in a very doglike fashion, especially Wilma,” keeper Marty Dearie says. “Everywhere I go, she’s sticking her head out like, ‘What are you doing?’ She wants to interact in a playful way.”
So, exactly what makes a happy home for an urban bison? According to Sarro, it’s all about a comfy barn, grass, shade, water and a future wallowing hole for mud baths. Bison love to wallow in mud or dust to stay cool. When they’re ready, Wilma and Zora will pick the spot for a wallowing hole in their enclosure.
“Once they pick a spot and start rolling around in it, we’ll add water and dirt to make it a true mud wallow for them,” Sarro says. “Bison love to wallow.”
More than 30 million bison once roamed wild in North America. But by the mid-1800s, bison had been hunted nearly to extinction. Zoos and conservation organizations have worked together to bring them back.
The American Prairie Reserve has more than 300,000 acres of wild prairie, which serves as home to hundreds of bison and other wild animals such as elk, white-tailed deer, coyotes, mountain lions and such small animals as brown bats, beavers, bobcats, weasels, rattlesnakes and snapping turtles. For more information, you and your parents can check out www.americanprairie.org.
● American bison are large herbivores (grass eaters) that can plow snow with their wide furry heads to find grass buried underneath.
● They are the largest land animal native to North America and can run faster than horses.
● In the wild, bison help prairie dogs stay safe by keeping the grass short so predators have fewer places to hide.
● Bison (and two types of buffalo — Asian and African) are in the same family of hoofed animals as cattle, sheep, antelopes and goats. But bison are not the same species as buffalo.
What: The new American bison exhibit at the Smithsonian’s National Zoo.
Where: 3001 Connecticut Ave. NW. On the Olmsted Walk between the Elephant Community Center and the Giant Panda Habitat.
How much: Free.
More information: A parent can
call 202-633-4888 or go to
Don’t miss: The bison “selfie” cutout.