Every year, more than three million people pour into Yellowstone National Park, eager to escape the cramped cubicles and tiny apartments from whence they came.
They gaze upon the geysers. They marvel at the mountains and valleys. They hike around miles of picturesque trails. In other words, they get closer to nature.
Occasionally a little too close.
On Tuesday, a 43-year-old Mississippi woman and her six-year-old daughter were snapping a selfie in front of a wild bison when the massive animal attacked.
The woman, who had her back turned to the bison even though it was barely six yards away, tried to flee but was overtaken by the bison and tossed into the air, according to the Associated Press. The unidentified tourist was taken to a clinic nearby and treated for minor injuries.
The attack is the fifth so far this year in which a Yellowstone tourist got too close to a bison.
And although it appears to be the first bison selfie-gone-wrong in the park, two previous incidents also involved people approaching the hulking animals for photos.
On May 15, a 16-year-old Taiwanese exchange student similarly turned her back on a bison to pose for a group photo when the even-toed ungulate took umbrage.
Although park rangers tell tourists to remain at least 25 yards from bison — which can run up to 30 miles per hour — the girl was between three and six feet away from the animal when it attacked, goring her in the buttocks.
When park rangers arrived to rescue her, however, they found bystanders less than 10 feet away from the very same bison. The Taiwanese teen was airlifted to a hospital with serious but not life-threatening injuries, according to the National Park Service.
On June 2, an Australian man was taking photos within five feet of a 2,000-pound bison in the same area when the bull suddenly charged him, hooking him with its horns and tossing him into the air several times. Incredibly, the man lived, according to CNN.
Two other bison attacks round out this year’s tally of tourists getting too close to the beasts. On June 23, a teenage park concession stand worker had just finished taking a late-night swim in the Firehole River when she stumbled upon a bison. She, too, was thrown into the air, suffering minor injuries.
Roughly a week later, a 68-year-old Georgia woman was hiking along Storm Point Trail when she was gored by a bison. She was hospitalized but survived.
The root problem is simple, according to park spokeswoman Amy Bartlett.
“People are getting way too close,” she told the AP after Tuesday’s attack. “The [woman] said they knew they were doing something wrong but thought it was okay because other people were nearby,” she also said.
Bison herds once roamed freely across the Great Plains, but Yellowstone is now one of the few places where the animals still run wild.
“Yellowstone is the only place in the United States where bison have lived continuously since prehistoric times,” according to the National Park Service. “A number of Native American tribes especially revere Yellowstone’s bison as pure descendants of the vast herds that once roamed the grasslands of the United States. The largest bison population in the country on public land resides in Yellowstone. It is one of the few herds free of cattle genes.”
In recent years, tourists have started taking selfies with Yellowstone’s 5,000 or so bison.
It appears to be part of a bigger trend of tourists snapping photos of themselves in front of wild, often dangerous animals.
Across North America, people have taken to social media to post selfies with deer, moose, bison and even bears. Park officials from the Sierra Nevadas to Alberta, Canada, have issued bulletins blasting visitors for getting too close to the animals in pursuit of the perfect selfie.
“Visitor Center staff routinely encounter unsafe situations as guests ignore their instructions and get too close to bears to take photos and videos,” the U.S. Forest Service recently warned.
“It is difficult to believe people are doing this,” wrote Tom Stienstra last month in the San Francisco Chronicle. “It is becoming a worldwide phenomenon. People are posting selfies with wildlife on Instagram, the photographers often posing with mock looks of terror on their faces.”
Whether it’s bison or bears or — in the case of one unfortunate teenager — a squirrel, selfies leave photographers vulnerable: For the full effect, they have to turn their backs to the animal and can’t see when something goes wrong.
And although it might seem to some animal rights activists like poetic (or photographic) justice if a selfie-seeker harassing a wild creature is attacked, it’s not so simple.
“Possibly, the person who ends up being gored or attacked is maybe not the one who is harassing the animal,” Bartlett said, according to CNN. The animal “may have been approached all day long … eventually the animal reaches its breaking point and charges people.”
According to a 2000 study, Yellowstone’s bison are actually more dangerous than its bears. The study found that bison had charged people 81 times over 22 years, killing two. The park’s grizzly bears, meanwhile had injured 30 and killed two, the AP reported.
Tuesday’s goring comes as Yellowstone tries to crack down on the problem. In recent weeks, rangers have distributed pamphlets featuring images of a man being gored and flung into the air by a bison, according to the AP. The flier warns visitors that though they appear docile, bison are “wild, unpredictable, and dangerous.”
“A ranger can’t be at every bison all the time,” Bartlett told the AP. “So people need to keep that common sense.”
Although this year’s tally of five gorings is unusually high, it’s not even close to being a record. That was back in 1987 when more than 40 people were injured in bison attacks in Yellowstone.
The stories are almost always the same: someone seeking an extreme photo gets too close for comfort.
In 1983, a French tourist ended up with a torn colon, punctured stomach, four broken ribs and a severely damaged spleen in one of the worst Yellowstone gorings, according to UPI. He was posing for a photo six feet from the animal when it attacked.
”A person wouldn’t approach a 60-pound dog in a neighbor’s yard but will approach an 800-pound bison with no fear at all,” Chief Ranger Tom Hobbs told UPI at the time.
In 1998, a quick-witted park employee avoided a mass goring by playing dead. Kariann King was on a nature walk with three seven-year-old boys when two bison — pelted with rocks by other park visitors — thundered their way. King instructed the kids to lay on the ground and play dead until another park employee nudged the bison out of the way with a pickup truck, according to the AP.
“I could smell him,” King said of one bull. “That’s how I knew that he was extremely close.”
Rangers have gone to great lengths over the decades to prevent close encounters of the bovine kind. When they first started handing out the graphic fliers back in 1985, it initially appeared to do the trick.
“What I feel is an indicator that it’s working is what we see fewer people leaving vehicles, leaving the road and walking right up to within 10 to 15 feet of an 1,800-pound animal with horns,” Acting Chief Ranger Gary Brown told the AP at the time.
Two years later, however, bison attacks were at an all-time high.
In 1991, rangers took a radical approach: They began shooting the most aggressive bison — with paint balls.
“The yellow-paint splat treatment is intended to … [teach] human beings to associate chrome buffalo with a high probability of being gored,” the Economist reported in the summer of 1991. “It seems to have worked, so far: officials report no trouble involving the two marked beasts.”
It’s no surprise that the gorings occur during the summer. More than 80 percent of Yellowstone’s visitors arrive during the summer months, according to the park’s Web site.
Occasionally, gored tourists have gone after the park. In 1984, 70-year-old Gladys Hoffman from Waco, Tex., sued the federal government for $1.5 million after she was gored by a Yellowstone bison. Hoffman claimed that the United States, the Department of Interior and the park’s superintendent were guilty of negligence for failing to warn her of the danger, UPI reported at the time.
But a federal judge ruled against Hoffman. “The plaintiff admitted that she knew bison are dangerous animals,” U.S. District Judge Clarence Brimmer said. “The evidence showed the plaintiff nevertheless approached to within 15 feet” of the bison that gored her.
During the trial, a government attorney, Lisa Leschuck, added insult to injury, arguing that “an animal weighing 2,000 pounds with horns is nature’s warning,” UPI reported.
Despite decades of bison-related injuries, wildlife is responsible for very few of Yellowstone accidents every year. Most injuries are due to slips and falls, the AP reported in May.
And while bison have been blamed for two deaths in park history, “20 visitors have died after being boiled by one of Yellowstone’s geysers or geothermal features,” the AP reported.
Although tourists are told to be careful around bison, the real danger is normally the other way around.
While one person on average is gored per year in Yellowstone, more than 3,700 bison have died since 2000 during “hazing” or disease control operations, according to On Earth magazine.
Every spring, state and federal officials try to “haze,” or redirect, the bison back into parks like Yellowstone. But when bison herds won’t budge, officials are often forced to kill them, as in the case of two bulls shot in 2013. Similarly, sick bison are killed to prevent disease from spreading.