It is July 1843. John James Audubon, Owen McKenzie and John Bell are hunting bison, or buffaloes, near the confluence of the Missouri and Yellowstone rivers. McKenzie shoots a big bull twice with a rifle at close range. The animal seems finished. Audubon and Bell approach.
“As we came near, he worked himself slowly round to face us, and then made a lunge at us,” Audubon wrote in his journal. “We then stopped on one side and commenced discharging our pistols with little or no effect, except to increase his fury with every shot. His appearance was now one to inspire terror had we not felt satisfied with our ability to avoid him. However, even so, I came very near being overtaken by him. … I placed myself directly in front of him instead of veering to one side, not supposing that he was able to overtake me; but turning my head over my shoulder, I saw to my horror, Mr. Bull within three feet of me, prepared to give me a taste of his horns. The next instant I turned sharply off, and the Buffalo being unable to turn quickly enough to follow me, Bell took the gun from Owen and shot him directly behind the shoulder blade. He tottered for a moment … fell forward on his horns, then rolled over on his side and was dead.”
A century and a half later, I have my own unpleasant encounter with a bison. It is July 1993. My teenage son Josh and I are photographing wildlife in Nebraska’s Fort Niobrara National Wildlife Refuge when we encounter a lone bull watching over a dozen cows and eight calves. We have driven through several Midwestern states hoping for an opportunity like this, and the bison seem pleased to oblige. They act as tame as Holsteins at a milking barn, shuffling along an old fence just a few yards from our truck.
The fence, however, presents a problem. The bison aren’t in an enclosure, but photos with barbed wire in the background will make it seem so. I decide, therefore, to leave the truck and approach the animals so I can zoom in with a telephoto lens and exclude the fence from my photos.
I am wary and instruct Josh to keep the truck motor running … just in case. But my fears seem unfounded. The bison pay me no heed. The enormous bull, an animal weighing close to a ton, has found a wallow and is now rolling on the ground. I decide to photograph him.
The bull continues rolling in the dirt as I move within 50 yards and set up my tripod and camera. I cast a cautious glance at him again, but he ignores me … or so it seems. When I look in the camera’s viewfinder, trying to focus on the animal’s massive head, everything is a blur. I look up, and like Mr. Audubon 150 years before, I see to my horror Mr. Bull within a few feet of me, prepared to give me a taste of his horns. I veer sharply as the bull crashes through my camera gear. He seems momentarily surprised and slows a bit (so Josh later tells me), giving me time to scramble up on top of the pickup. I shout to Josh: “Go, son! Go!” But all I can hear is the grinding of gears and hysterical laughter.
I turn to see the bison standing in front of the truck, kicking up clods of dirt and shaking his head like El Toro in a bullfight. His appearance is now one to inspire terror, yet Josh finds the scene strangely humorous. He takes much longer than I think necessary to regain his composure and back the pickup a safe distance away.
I suppose it was funny to a 16-year-old, watching his dad run in wide-eyed terror as a hump-backed bull the size of a van chased him on top of the truck. When it was over, I laughed myself. Such events don’t always end in laughter, however.
Sept. 18, 2017: I am photographing bison again at a ranch where the animals are raised for meat. Several have gathered closely around me and the ranch owners, attracted by range cubes the owners are feeding them. None of the animals is aggressive, but as one old cow passes near, she raises her head and accidentally hooks one of my belt loops with her horn. When she feels my weight on her head, she explodes.
I remember little of the next 10 seconds. As the bison throws me around like a rag doll, smashing me against her head, the ranch owners try desperately to pull me off her. They finally succeed.
I feel battered, but after resting a short while, I seem OK. There are no broken bones — not even any bruising. So I continue my job photographing the bison and decide later I’m OK to drive home. As I near Little Rock, however, a wave of nausea and dizziness overcomes me, and I know something is wrong. I drive to my wife’s office and have her take me to the hospital emergency room.
By the time I arrive, I’m in shock. My blood pressure has plummeted dangerously low, and I have two huge hematomas on each side where the bison’s horns pummeled me. A trauma team works on me for more than an hour.
I’m lucky in more ways than one. After an overnight stay in the hospital, I’ll be released to go home and recuperate. None of my injuries is life-threatening, but I’m severely battered, in horrible pain and will need several weeks off work to recuperate.
I’m also lucky because the CT scans done on me in the hospital reveal a potentially deadly form of cancer in my right kidney. Fortunately, the tumors are small, and removal of the kidney should resolve the issue entirely. My horrifying buffalo ride actually saved my life by revealing this deadly disease that might otherwise have gone undetected.
I know I am blessed. I have survived two potentially deadly bison encounters and discovered the cancer early enough for treatment. I feel a strong obligation, however, to warn you about bison. They may appear peaceful and slow-moving, but these massive ungulates can weigh up to 2,000 pounds and sprint up to 30 mph, making them a lethal combination of strength, weight and speed. Many people have been killed or severely injured after approaching bison.
No matter how docile bison appear, you should never get within 100 yards of one. Stay away. Stay far, far away.
Audubon and I were lucky.