Wildlife Myths And Manners

When you have park visitors asking such questions as, "The animals aren't really wild, are they?" you have a recipe for disaster.

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There’s a razor-sharp line between naivete and idiocy, and on one splendid autumn day in Wyoming’s Yellowstone National Park, I watched a man precariously straddle that line, unaware of the keen edge that was about to slice apart his life and that of his child.

It was early October and The Wife and I were in the midst of a 2-month swing through the Rockies. We’d pulled into a virtually empty Yellowstone, the windshield tourists long since gone because of their well-documented allergy to snow (flakes having fallen the week before). Bull elk with harems ambled through deserted car campgrounds, bald eagles glided overhead, and buffalo nibbled on whatever they could scrounge up. It was soul-soothing bliss.

The burgers weren’t bad, either. After far too many meals of instant bloatmeal and mac ‘n’ cheese, we’d stopped at Grant Village not just to replenish camping staples, but also

to dine on real food while plotting our backwoods course. As we sat enjoying the bluebird sky and an unseasonably warm day, I noticed a huge, magnificently solitary bison bull off in the distance.

So did some passersby, and a sedan screeched to a halt on the far side of the buffalo. Out poured a family, jumping around like fleas on a hotplate, consumed with the unfettered excitement you often see in a place so steeped in natural wonders. A large camera rose to mother’s eye two or three times, then she pointed to the great horned beast. Father, without hesitation, grabbed a small boy from the cluster of kids and marched briskly toward the bison. Here was a family in search of the ultimate souvenir: a picture of Little Whozit astride the symbol of the Great American Frontier.

Problem is, buffalo look tame, like big ol’, lazy, shaggy dogs, but they are notoriously edgy brutes that don’t take kindly to being treated like amusement-park rides.

I dropped my burger and ran toward the child-toter, frantically waving my arms and yelling for him to stop. He did, then mumbled something in a European dialect, looked at me in disgust, and huffed his way back to the car.

The following summer, another European, also apparently bent on getting a great vacation photo, stood about 6 feet from a solitary bull when it charged. Alain Jean-Jacques Dumont, 21, of Toulouse, France, died after being gored and tossed 10 feet in the air. Yellowstone’s only other bison-related death occurred under similar circumstances. Marvin Schrader, his wife, and their three children were near Old Faithful when they spotted a lone bull in a meadow. Schrader was about 20 feet from the buffalo, taking photos, when the animal charged. The man was gored and tossed 12 feet.

In Death in Yellowstone: Accidents and Foolhardiness in the First National Park, author and Yellowstone Historical Archivist Lee

Whittlesey relates a bit of pithy advice he attributes to a coworker: “Get a clue, people. These animals are not tame.” That from a 14-year-veteran tour guide who one day watched a buffalo toss a 70-year-old New Jersey man into the air, luckily injuring only his leg.

Why do such foolish and highly preventable incidents occur? An insightful anecdote Whittlesey offers may give a clue: A park visitor who was warned he was too close to a buffalo was heard to casually reply, “Oh, they’re a lot tamer than (park officials) tell you they are.”

While some people believe animals are a resource put on Earth to be used by humans–hunters and farmers mostly–there are those at the other end of the spectrum who view beasts as cute, petlike. To these people, wild animals fill an emotional need, and are gentle and nonthreatening. Social scientists label this The Bambi Syndrome, and it confounds Whittlesey. “It never ceases to amaze me that some people can’t grasp the simple truth that animals can hurt them.”

Yet another brow-raising tale: “While rangering at the Mammoth Visitor Center one summer,” relates Whittlesey, “I was approached by a man with a wild look in his eyes. These animals running around out here… they couldn’t be wild, could they, or you wouldn’t just have them running around loose?’ I gave the standard warning speech, trying to be patient and not to laugh or be horrified.”

The sighting of a wild beast in its natural environs is an eye-popping experience that elicits powerful emotions. Some theorists say it stirs a wildness deep within us that’s usually well hidden by civilization, a part of our animal nature we thought we shed when we evolved into a modern society. Whatever the reason, an encounter with a wilderness critter can be a life-altering moment. (To this day, blood surges through me like a flash flood when I think about the first time I heard a bear snuffling around outside my tent.)

Yellowstone isn’t the only park where human-animal confrontations occur, nor are bison the only animals involved. There are documented incidents of moose, coyotes, and elk injuring park visitors throughout North America. (I once watched a well-racked bull elk larger than a minivan try to shish-kebab a Lycra-clad, middle-aged, camera-clutching woman in Canada’s Banff National Park.) The culprit is always a lack of common sense.

So the next time you’re extended the privilege and honor of sharing land that’s home to wild creatures, hold them in high regard, respect their ways, and teach your fellow travelers to do the same. Remember that there’s a reason we don’t call them tamelife and that they have a right to exist free of human interference. Adhere strictly to Whittlesey’s simple code of the woods: Never approach any animal–even small ones–because they are all potentially dangerous. “We humans are only temporary visitors,” he says. “This is the animals’ home. Give them a break, and give yourself one in the process.”