Mind Reading

Two Bison

photograph: Two Bison

Photo by Jean-Erick Pasquier

One of the most influential defenders of wildlife at the turn of the 20th century was William T. Hornaday, a founder of the New York Zoological Society (today called the Wildlife Conservation Society), and director of the New York Zoological Park (now the Bronx Zoo). In The Minds and Manners of Wild Animals: A Book of Personal Observations, he cited a number of encounters with members of the deer family in which people had been injured or killed, and continued:

The hollow-horned ruminants seem to be different. I believe that toward their keepers the bison, buffaloes and wild cattle entertain a certain measure of respect that in members of the Deer Family often is totally absent. But there are exceptions; and a very sad and notable case was the murder of Richard W. Rock, of Henry's Lake, Idaho, in 1903.

Rancher Rock bred bison, and often rode his favorite (ironically named "Indian") around the corral barebacked. "Rock felt," said Hornaday, "that he could confidently trust the animal, and he never dreamed of guarding himself against a possible evil day."

But one day the blood lust seized the buffalo, and he decided to assassinate his best friend. The next time Dick Rock entered the corral, closing the gate and fastening it securely,—thus shutting himself in,—the big bull attacked him so suddenly and fiercely that there was not a moment for either escape or rescue. We can easily estimate the suddenness of the attack by the fact that alert and active Dick Rock had not time even to climb upon the fence of the corral, whereby his life would have been saved. With a mighty upward thrust, the treacherous bull drove one of his horns deeply into his master's body, and impaled him so completely and securely that the man hung there and died there! As a crowning horror, the bull was unable to dislodge his victim, and the body of the ranchman was carried about the corral on the horns of his assassin until the horrified wife went a mile and a half and summoned a neighbor, who brought a rifle and executed the murderer on the spot.

Such sudden onslaughts as this make it unsafe to trust implicitly, and without recourse, to the good temper of any animal having dangerous horns.1

Hornaday's point is certainly valid. Bison are unpredictable, dangerous animals that must be regarded with caution. But he saw bison as shaggy four legged humans endowed with the capacity for people-feelings—"respect," "best friend," "his master's body"—and people-passions—"murder," "blood lust," and "assassin." Indeed, he opened his book with the motto, "The wild animal must think, or die."

1. (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1922), p. 289.