A while back, a friend of mine was walking her dogs on her farm, minding her own biz, when all of a sudden she came upon some bison in the woods.
Eh? She lives in the Carolinas. You know: East coastal USA. Farms, roads, well-settled rural countryside. What's the likelihood of running into random bison in the woods there? But there they were, big as life. She posted the pictures to prove it.
Myself, I'm fond of bison. They're beautiful in my eyes, creatures of contrast and power. I love the way they combine opposites. The coat over their back half is smooth and can look sleek as a horse's flank in the sun, but over their humps they are woolly and coarse. They are huge and powerfully built, but surprisingly agile - and despite their ponderous appearance, they can run - and keep at it. Their shoulders are so huge that they seem to be all shoulder, with nothing much behind it - but as any horseman knows, impulsion comes from the rear, and no animal can run at sustained speed without drive from the hindquarters. Granted that because of their enormous power, Bison rarely have to jump fences - generally they can just take them down and go on through - but jump, they undeniably can. Because of their woolly faces, it's hard at times even to see their eyes, let alone assess any sense of expression or intelligence - but if you're lucky enough to get close to a bison (without actually dying in the attempt), there is an undeniable intelligence in their dark, bright eyes.
Mostly - because bison do not suffer fools gladly - you see them from a distance. They are much faster than we are, and if you annoy them, they are easily capable of killing you. But every so often you get lucky, and can see one up close and personal.
You know I'm going to tell you I got lucky that way, right?
One day, during one or another of my rotations at vet school, I got sent down to the barns. I forget why, now; I was on an errand of some kind for one of my instructors. I inquired in the barns and was told the professor with whom I needed to speak was out by the bull stocks, anesthetizing something.
Okay, then. I wandered out to where the bull stocks were set up. There was a huge stock trailer out there, pulled up and parked by a maze of chutes that had been set up to funnel bulls toward the bull stocks. I made my way along the chutes - movable panels, heavily constructed, which can be arranged and rearranged into suitable configurations. Here and there are metal-collared holes in the asphalt into which the legs of some panels can be slotted for stability. I stroll alongside the panels, following my nose until I could see a knot of people gathered around the bull stocks.
The bull stocks, I should tell you, are designed to hold massive Charolais and Simmental bulls, animals that might be almost three thousand pounds of lean, muscular, pissy male animal, and one who may not be all that interested in being poked and prodded by the likes of us. The stocks do a fine job of restraint without injury. Made of heavy tubular steel - in our case, painted a jaunty red - they feature an adjustable head-catch. The bull is funnelled into the stocks, and the sides of the head-catch are moved inwards behind the head and secured so that they fit comfortably alongside the width of the neck, but are too narrow to allow the animal to back his head past them and escape back the way he came in. The sides and top of the stocks are constructed to allow plenty of clearance so that the bull is unlikely to injure himself should he kick, lunge or rear up in the stocks (in an attempt to leap forward and escape). They're also constructed sturdily enough to withstand such attempts, which are not uncommon. The floor is plate steel, easily hosed off and robust enough to endure any amount of stomping by one-plus-ton animals in a bad mood.
The stocks happen to be set up in a sort of bay alongside the chutes; there is a large door which can be opened or closed, depending on weather, and the stocks themselves are under the cover of the roof. So there I am, walking toward the knot of students and clinicians, squinting against the sunny day. At first all I see in the dimness of the stock bay is the gleam of light on the shiny red paint of the stocks and the cluster of blue jackets: Clinicians and students milling around. Behind them I see a dark coffee-colored animal in the stocks, but with the sun in my eyes that's all I can tell.
As I get closer, I hear one of the clinicians say, "Well, he's not going down; give him another dose." A student opens a syringe and draws up drugs, hands them to the clinician. As the students shift about to accommodate the doctor, I step into the shade of the building, close enough now to see what they're up to.
That dull gleam of espresso hide is no Simmental. It's a bison bull.
Hmm. This just got a lot more interesting.
I come to a stop just our of range of the milling students; this is, after all, their rotation, not mine, and I don't want to interfere with what they're learning. Moreover, if I don't draw attention to myself, no one will ask me what I'm doing there, so I won't be able to complete my errand and be sent off to return to my own rotation - which right now isn't half as riveting as this one.
One of the doctors injects the medication into the bison. The bison ignores this move; he seems uninterested in the puny sting of the needle, and stands stoically, his eye relaxed, his posture almost casual. My eyes travel over his massive shape. His hump touches to top of the stocks. I can see the woolly coat rubbing against the painted steel. His tail swishes lazily over the gate at the rear of the stocks; they are barely long enough to contain him.
"Wow," I say quietly to one of the students. "He's big."
"Yeah," the student says, grinning at me. "We almost couldn't get his head through the catch. It's on the widest setting, and it barely fits."
"What's going on?" I ask.
"He has a tooth root abscess. We're going to culture it."
I nod. This is a painful condition, and when infection gets into the bone, it can be extremely difficult to eliminate. Sometimes the best you can hope for is to control it, not cure it - but good antibiotic selection is key, if you're to have a hope of cure. Getting an accurate culture is your first step - but it requires that you don't have any contaminants. You have to get a sample that is from the abscess alone, which in turn means you have to clip and clean the surrounding area, and insert a swab into the abscess - which, I will remind you, is likely to be painful. Ultimately a tooth root abscess can be a fatal condition, because it interferes with the willingness to eat, not to mention the ability to chew - and in a ruminant, the ability to ruminate. Ruminants have to chew their cuds; it's an essential part of their digestive process. Not being able to do so long term would be a serious problem. And of course there is always the risk of the infection escaping its primary site and taking over the body, and the drain on the animal caused by the constant, unrelenting battle to keep the infection from doing just that.
We stand, we wait. The bison blinks sleepily. A fly lights on his ear and he flicks it off. The clinician crouches, squinting at the abscess site, and parts the coarse bearding under the bison's jaw. The fly lights near the bull's eye. The bison shakes his head - lazily, and just once. The fly is undisturbed, but the stocks rattle and groan, shifting a few inches across the concrete with a scraping shriek.
Everyone takes a step back. One of the clinicians darts a glance over the students, making sure no one is in immediate danger. Another eyes the top of the stocks, where the bison's hump is rubbing, then travels to the head-catch. He eyes it hard, as if glaring at it will increase its strength; so far, it's holding.
After a long moment - during which the bison does nothing alarming - one clinician says, "How much has he had?"
"Three times as much as it would take to drop a bull this weight," says another. They exchange a glance, then look at the patient again. The patient, slightly roused by the noise of the stocks, looks right back. His gaze is calm, but its intelligence is undiminished by the drugs, and he has a contemplative air, as if considering just how much crap he's willing to tolerate from us.
"Better give him a little more," says one, and the other nods, picking up the drug vial.
"Anything happens, bail over the chutes right away," advises the client, standing slightly off to the side and observing the proceedings with interest. "He's only a youngster, but if he gets mad, he won't be kidding around."
Everyone nods. The clinician gives another injection. As before, the bison ignores it. He makes a couple of chewing motions, licking his lips with his long black tongue.
I sidle off to the side near the owner, keeping out of the way. I can't take my eyes off the patient; there is something compelling about him. Even still and quiet, dampened by the calm of the drugs, he radiates power and vitality. He has a mild, pleasant animal smell to him - not bovine, not equine - something else. Despite the fact that he is under the cover of the building, caged in the gleaming red of the stocks, there is a wildness to him; he has been reared in captivity, but the hand of civilization has not domesticated him in the slightest degree. Habituated, he may be. Tame, he is not. He may be so used to us that he is unimpressed by our proximity - but I can't imagine it would be possible to ever be unimpressed by him.
The owner glances at me, sees my gaze riveted to his bison, smiles a little.
"Handsome, ain't he?" he says.
"Yeah," I say quietly, trying not to disturb the tableau. "What are they like to live with?"
"Pretty disrespectful of fences, but otherwise they're easier to rear than cattle. They gain weight faster on less feed, for one thing. The cows are real sturdy, never have trouble calving, and once they start breeding, they'll breed their entire lives without trouble - way longer reproductive lifespan than domestics have. They hardly ever get sick. You have to cull the bulls, of course, or you have fighting, but they generally won't challenge a dominant male 'til they're three or more."
"How old is he?" I ask.
"Two," he says. "But he's a good-sized youngster, so if we can get this thing cleared up, I'll breed him."
I glance up at the bison's hump. He's got to be six feet at the shoulder, maybe more. Good-sized. Yeah.
A few more minutes pass. The bull's eyelid begins to droop.
"Finally," mutters one of the clinicians, and motions to the students. I hear the buzz of clippers. Everyone waits for a long, assessing moment, eyeing the bison, but he seems uninterested in the noise. The students swarm stealthily into action, sidling quietly up to clip and scrub the abscess. A sterile swab is inserted into the abscess site; the bison lifts his head an inch or two, and the stocks creak alarmingly. But the student is quick, and the stocks hold. The bison goes back to his lazy, ruminative chewing motion for a moment, then relaxes.
The students begin sweeping up the long curls of bison beard. I bend down and snag one.
One of the clinicians spots me at last. "What's up?" he asks, noticing that I don't belong on this rotation. I tuck the bison hair into my pocket.
"Oh, I had a question from Dr. Gray," I say, and complete my errand. I dawdle a little, but I can't justify hanging around any longer; after all, I do have my own rotation to attend to, and I imagine that Large Animal is backed up a bit, given that it took way longer to sedate the bison than they probably expected. I trail along with the student taking the culture sample to Clin Path, asking him the question that has lurked in my brain since I saw the stocks start shifting across the floor.
"So how'd you get him through the chutes and into the stocks in the first place?"
"Luck," says the student darkly. I snort a little "Don't laugh," he says. "He took down one row of chutes just by leaning his shoulder on them a little. Luckily the client knows his biz - he warned us, so we had backups in place. We pretty much only got him in the stocks because he felt like going. And that's after we tagged some drugs on board with a pole syringe."
Yikes. I think back to that one casual little head shake - and I mean little head shake, not even enough to displace a fly from his eyelid. The rattle and groan of the stocks replays itself in my head. I can't even come close to imagining how much power that bison would have if he meant business.
"What if he was full-grown?" I wonder. I try to picture it. I can't.
"Well, he wouldn't fit in the stocks, I'll tell you that much," says the student.
"How do you think that guy got him into the stock trailer in the first place?" I ask.
"Beats me, but I'm glad I'm not his farm hand," says my cohort, peeling off to take his samples to the clin path lab.
I return to my own rotation, smiling a little, my mind back on the deep liquid shine of a bison eye. It's rejuvenated me a bit, this little encounter with something so full of thoughtless vitality, power, wildness. There's something deeply reassuring about the awareness that no matter what we've changed and domesticated and tamed in this world, we haven't taken the wildness out of everything.
Not even ourselves.