Prairie Lights: Sympathy for the bison-loving tourists


The unfortunate effect of photos like this is that unsophisticated viewers might think they, too, can be friends with a bison.

I feel doubly bad about the viral video in which the young woman attempts to pet a bison in Yellowstone National Park.

For one thing, thousands, perhaps millions, of people will watch it and think, “I knew that business about the bison being dangerous was bullshit. The animal couldn’t have cared less.”

For another, anyone reading the comments about the video made by residents of Montana, Wyoming and other western states is going to think, “Wow, what a bunch of mean-spirited know-it-alls.”

We think we’re so smart because we know the rules. We’ve been to Yellowstone on numerous occasions, we’ve seen all the warnings, we’ve seen countless videos of moron tourists provoking and then being chased, gored and trampled by bison.

But think of all the people who come here from big cities or foreign countries. The only large animals they’ve ever seen have been in zoos, or maybe in the circus. Any animal considered remotely dangerous is in a cage, separated from visitors by a moat or a chasm, or, in the case of the circus, controlled by a man with a big hook or a whip.

So tourists come to Yellowstone and maybe they glance at the brochures or signs warning of the dangers of wildlife. But then they come upon a bison sitting peacefully on a boardwalk, looking calm and somewhat bored, with the mien of a very large, friendly dog.

“Aw, look at that,” the tourists think to themselves, or say to their likewise misinformed friends. “I’m sure he wouldn’t mind if I went over and patted him on his curly-haired noggin.”

So they do, and sometimes they walk away with their ignorance and their persons untouched. Other times … well, just imagine being speared by one of those massive horns, or being stomped on by those iron hooves. It’s one way of learning a lesson, I suppose, but it doesn’t do much to protect the next blissfully innocent tourist to come down the pike, or the boardwalk.

Then, after being battered by a bison, the tourist is subjected to a stream of scorn from the locals. “What kind of idiot …?” “Don’t use my tax dollars to put that moron in an ambulance.” “It’s tourist season. Why can’t we shoot them?” And so on.

Let me repeat: for most people in most parts of the world, it’s inconceivable that dangerous animals would be allowed to mingle so intimately with visitors in a place as public as Yellowstone National Park. It would be like letting the rattlesnakes out of their enclosures at Reptile Gardens over in Rapid City.

As heavily as the park is visited, we should be more amazed that so few tourists come to grief in this way. Maybe we should try rewards instead of warnings: everyone from a foreign country or living within 500 miles of the east or west coast could be given a prize for exiting the park without injuries.

As for the scorn we love to aim at these unfortunate tourists, maybe we would display more humility if we knew how people in big cities talked about us:

New Yorker No. 1: “And then this idiot hillbilly on the subway says ‘hello’ to me!”

New Yorker No. 2: “Get out!”

NY 1: “Honest to god. He seemed determined to talk, so I asked him where he was from. Bumsquat, Idaho, I think he said, or maybe Montana or something. I was going to give him some advice, but then he gave money to a panhandler! On the subway! I figured, ‘Screw it. He’s on his own.’”

And I assure you it’s not just foreigners and out-of-staters who overestimate their capabilities as a modern-day St. Francis of Assisi.

I speak as the owner of a dog that apparently was badly mistreated as a pup, and still acts on the assumption that all strangers mean to do him harm. But he is small and he is rather cute, and when I tell strangers who want to pet him that he wants nothing to do with them, how many times have I heard the response, “Oh, dogs love me!”

And my dog will bark and snarl and lunge and I’ll pull on the leash and say, “Not this dog, apparently.” And nine times out of 10, or maybe in every single case, that person will walk away still convinced he (or she) has a special talent for getting along with dogs.

It is but a small leap from those people to the tourists who glance at the bison-warning brochures and think to themselves, “Ha! Not me. Animals love me!”

Speaking of St. Francis, he was said to have made peace between the people of a little village and a ferocious wolf that had eaten some of the village’s livestock—as well as several villagers. “Brother Wolf” was simply hungry, St. Francis said, so if the people would feed him, the depredations would stop. They did and it did.

Until another St. Francis comes along and shows us how to live with the bison, bears and wolves of Yellowstone Park, tourists need to use their brains, and we need to show a little more compassion.

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