Buffalo Bill Hornaday
It took the Bronx to save the American buffalo. By 1901 one of the few places where "Give me a home where the buffalo roam" could be sung in earnest was in a 20-acre meadow off what's now Pelham Pkwy., where a small herd grazed. Today the Bronx is still home to buffalos; the man in charge of them got his start in zoology by putting kids on the backs of elephants at the Bronx Zoo.
The buffalo's correct name is the American bison (Bison bison). These beasts are the largest mammals indigenous to North America. The bison has been on this continent since the Pleistocene epoch, when it came here from Asia via the Bering land bridge. Bison roamed from Canada to Mexico but found the Great Plains of America to be their favorite grazing spot.
In the 18th century, the Wildlife Conservation Society estimates that 60,000,000 bison roamed America. Accounts from that time tell of the impressive sight of thousands of bison running through a meadow like a tidal wave of fur and hoofs. Native Americans followed the great herds for centuries, living off the mammal: their hides were used for teepees, bones for weapons and tools and the meat was a staple of their diet. In the mid- to late 19th century, as white settlers and the transcontinental railroad spread through the west, bison were hunted down in great numbers. Herds would mill about train tracks and casual hunters would shoot them from the train windows for sport. The slain bison were left in the sun to rot. They were hunted with such gusto that by the 1890s fewer than one thousand remained in all of America. The bison was about to go the way of the dodo bird.
In 1899, Iowa-born William Temple Hornaday?you just have to love the WASP names of the 19th-century gentry?came to the Bronx to run the New York Zoological Society (in 1994 it became known as the WCS: the Wildlife Conservation Society). Hornaday inherited a sorry patch of land off of what's now Pelham Pkwy. that was home to a ragged group of 800 various animals. He pushed and pulled for money and soon the zoo took shape. In 1905 he started the American Bison Society to help save the endangered animal.
Hornaday took a great interest in his charges. By 1907 he was shipping bison out to protected federal parklands?the animal was now back from where it had come. The herd in the Bronx was called the "mother herd" to what was left of the American bison. The Bronx Zoo's bison became so popular in lore that the old nickel, the one with the buffalo on it, was made using one of the Bronx bison?a bull named Black Diamond?as the model. Hornaday's herd flourished and today there are more than 300,000 bison in America.
Hornaday's bison prospered out west because of the wildlife refuges created by President Theodore Roosevelt. While Roosevelt and Hornaday can be given credit for saving the bison they were also a part of the gaggle of hunters that almost hunted them to near-extinction. In Edmund Morris' 1979 tome The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt there's a selection from one of Teddy's diaries when he was living in Dakota Territories in 1883:
There below me, not fifty yards off, was a great bull bison. He was walking along, grazing as he walked. His glossy fall coat was in fine trim and shone in the rays of the sun, while his pride of bearing showed him to be in the lusty vigor of his prime. As I rose above the crest of the hill, he held up his head and cocked his tail to the air. Before he could go off, I put a bullet in behind his shoulder. The wound was an almost immediately fatal one, yet with surprising agility for so large and cumbersome an animal, he bounded up the opposite side of the ravine...and disappeared over the ridge at a lumbering gallop, the blood pouring from his mouth and nostrils. We knew he could not go far, and trotted along his bloody trail...
At least Roosevelt ate the bison he gunned down, declaring that it "tasted uncommonly good..."
I called the Bronx Zoo and finally got in touch with Joe Mahoney, the supervisor of the mammal department (he spends most of his day out with the animals so it wasn't easy getting him on the phone). Mahoney lives on City Island and has an easy commute to the zoo. He loves his job and claims he actually enjoys going to work every day. He laughed as he told me that he began his career more than 20 years ago at the zoo running the elephant ride. He worked up to wild animal keeper and now every mammal in the zoo is under his care.
Mahoney oversees the bison keepers and told me how the animals are truly impressive physical specimens. They're fully mature at three years old and can live to be 25. Male bison?bulls?can measure upward of 6 feet tall when on their hind legs and can weigh in at 2000 pounds. When needed, these bovines can sprint up to 30 mph. I told Mahoney about a story I had read on how William Hornaday claimed that a bison turned on his friend and killed him.
"Bison are a handful from birth. They weigh in at 50 to 60 pounds and are all muscle. When they mature they are very big and very fast. During mating season when the big boys fight you better stay out of the way. They can knock down trees. It is during breeding season that they are very dangerous."
Mahoney said under his watch no one has been hurt by a bison and that's due to the handlers' caution. He told me how every night the trainers take the bison into an indoor corral, to protect them from storms, falling trees and packs of wild dogs. I asked Mahoney if the Bronx Zoo had problems with vandals breaking in at night.
"No, that is rare. And if they did they had better be careful where they go. Stray dogs are a bigger problem."
I asked Mahoney how the mother herd was doing.
"Our bison are doing very well. We have calves every year and some of the herd is out in the Flushing zoo. People like the exhibit, especially the bison romp. That's when we throw down hydroponic grass?which the bison love?and they charge down the hill to get at it. You see a herd of bison on the move and that is some sight."
Mahoney says that there are "zoo groupies" who come out every day "...and they are very observant. They know when an animal is missing or not looking well and they will tell you about it."
His favorite animal is where he began: elephants. He told me that elephant and gorilla trainers tend to stay on the longest and have the most loyalty to those animals. But Mahoney does have a warm spot for bison on certain days.
"My favorite time for bison is early in the morning after the first snow. You go out to the field and see them in the snow and it looks like they're out on the Great Plains. The snow on their hides and their warm breath making smoke paints a real picture of America."
Joe Mahoney is happy that he's found the heart of America wandering the fields in the Bronx.
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