Prairie Lights: Some readers buffaloed by April Fools’ fun


John Warner

Early on in the Photoshopping process, John Warner combined some bison in Yellowstone National Park with some runners, for initial impressions. A lot of work lay ahead.

Some years back, I wrote an expose of an article that ran in the now-defunct Weekly World News.

The article claimed that Montana Highway Patrol officers had gunned down a Bigfoot, also known as a sasquatch, after the brute terrorized a New Zealand couple in Beaverhead Rock State Park near Dillon.

Using my vast reporting skills, I poked the story so full of holes that my piece was picked up a few months later by Skeptical Inquirer magazine, published by the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal.

That surprised me. I wouldn’t have guessed that anyone subscribing to that magazine would have been tempted to believe in the existence of Bigfoot to begin with.

But you never know what people will believe. I found that out again recently when I wrote my own fanciful account of marauding hairy creatures. Regular readers of Last Best News will have figured out that I’m referring to my April Fools’ Day spoof on the “Running of the Bison” in downtown Laurel.

Most of those regular readers got the joke eventually, but there were plenty of people who swallowed it whole. I can’t tell you how gratifying it was to read comments like these, culled from Facebook and the comment section under the story on Last Best News (edited for clarity, since people write so hurriedly online):

♦ “I think this is ridiculous. People are trying to get the running of the bulls shut down and now Montana is being irresponsible!”

♦ “This is terrible. I hate to see these things. It’s mean to do this to the animals. Think about how tormented they feel, they have no idea what’s going on, they just know they’re being chased.”

♦ “Buffalo should not be used like this!”

♦ “What an incredible bunch of morons. Typical selfish stupid human behavior.”

It was just as gratifying to read the comments of people in the know, like the person who wrote: “The sheer amount of people that think this is real is funnier than the actual article.”

There is nothing wrong, though, with being snookered by an April Fools’ Day spoof. The late Mark Henckel, the Billings Gazette’s longtime outdoors editor, was a master of the form, consistently coming up with April 1 spoofs that never failed to elicit outpourings of shock, outrage and wonderment.

Like the time he “reported” that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers was going to restrict outboard motors on Fort Peck, Canyon Ferry and Holter reservoirs to 25 horsepower, to prevent the stirring up of dust on the lakes. The Corps was flooded with calls from furious fishermen.


John Warner

In this closeup of the main photo that accompanied our Running of the Bison story, John Warner points out how distance-perspective and shadowing on the ground are the essential components of successful Photoshopping.

One year he told of the marvelous “snow snakes” discovered up on the Rims, which changed their color to snow-white in the winter months. Speaking of snow, there was his utterly believable piece on the chap from Scobey who was in training for the little known Olympic Snow Team.

In the singles competition, Henckel soberly reported, these shoveling athletes would compete to clear a 100-yard-long, 10-foot-wide patch of ground in the shortest possible time. Year after year, the great outdoors writer reeled the suckers in.

In the case of the Running of the Bison, much of the credit goes to John Warner, the photographer who came up with the idea and then spent sleepless nights on Photoshop. (Actual quotes from the Warner household, from his 16-year-old son, Jeremiah: “Good God, you’ve been working on this all week,” and from his wife, Sheela: “I guess you didn’t start on the taxes either.”)

What resulted were images so convincing that readers apparently didn’t even pause to ponder some of the story’s more outlandish details.

A bison charging through the window at Café Mabel’s? A couple being thrown in the air after a bison gored and tossed the beer cooler they were sitting on? Ted Turner, the supposed provider of the animals, comparing the event to yacht racing?

Such is the power of realistic imagery—one picture being worth a thousand words and all that. His doctored photograph of a ditch-riding surfer helped sell our 2014 April 1 spoof, too. (Why didn’t we have one last year? We forgot!)

While I’m giving credit where it’s due, allow me to dole out the discredit as well—to the thieving bastards at a website called the Texarkana News Hub, who stole my story, changed a few details, put a new byline on it and pretended they had come up with the spoof for their readers.

And then they stole John’s main photo and changed “Laurel” on a banner across Main Street to “Texarkana.” Later, after we called them on their thievery, they cut the story way down and added an editor’s note trying to excuse their theft.

All in all, their professions of ignorance on matters having to do with intellectual property were so sincere that it was hard to stay angry at them. As the reader said above, “What an incredible bunch of morons.”

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