Thoughts by Richard Bleil
Some weeks ago, a tourist to the Black Hills ended up getting “pants” by a buffalo. It seems to happen regularly. The buffalo are generally peaceful creatures who will watch humans with curiosity, but usually won’t interact. As they stand near a road eating, periodically a tourist will mistake this calmness with gentleness and decide to try to go pet a buffalo.
They’re lucky if they survive.
As I understand it, in the incident to which I am referring, the individual didn’t try to pet just any buffalo, which would be bad enough, but a calf with momma buffalo right there. Naturally, momma decided that that wasn’t going to happen, and charged. The tourist’s belt, as I understand it, got caught in momma’s horn and was tossed around violently until the belt (and I believe the pants) broke and came off.
Even as I write this I’m laughing. Not because the tourist survived with remarkably few injuries, but because I cannot help but laugh when people are injured because of such extreme folly. I don’t mean to sound cruel, but who doesn’t know that you don’t try to pet wild animals, and especially the little ones??? The jokes really write themselves. But that’s not the point of today’s post.
Actually, I started thinking about WHY momma animals protect their babies with such ferocity. There is an obvious answer, protecting the babies protects the species, that might have popped into your mind that is now making you wonder why you’re still reading such a ridiculous post. But perhaps there’s something deeper.
Let’s consider that, in this instance, we’re not dealing with domesticated animals. This is important for my hypothesis. Domesticated animals have lived with us, grew up with us, and know us. It’s their knowledge that makes them far more docile and excepting not only of the closeness of human beings, including at their most vulnerable time during the birthing process, but also of their interactions with the offspring themselves. I imagine there’s some variance from animal to animal (such as personality differences), but for most of these animals, they have the experience to know that humans help them out. We are their source of food, of entertainment and even of love in many cases. But it goes back further than this in the lifetime of the domesticated animal.
Who does not adore “puppy pile” videos and photographs? As puppies grow from their most helpless newborn stages to an age where they’re full of life and ready to play, they see momma being tended to, cared for, and loved by their human partners. By the time puppies start playing with humans, while it might be with the watchful eye of a nearby mother, it’s nonetheless permitted by her. These puppies are allowed to run over, be picked up by, and generally play with their trusted human. This is momma teaching the babies that humans can be trusted, and that it’s okay to play with them and accept affection and gifts (as in treats, toys, food and water) from them.
Compare this with the calf buffalo. In the presence of humans, this calf is learning that it is okay if the humans are relatively close as they graze. They watch their mommas as well and will imitate their behaviors. But when a human gets too close, one of two things will happen. Because the buffalo do not know the humans, gain no benefits from the humans, they have no reason to trust the humans. Because humans generally do not show predatory behaviors near the buffalo, they don’t run as they might, say, from a mountain lion. But they still don’t know what the humans want, and I’m sure have no idea why they watch buffalo. So, the mildest response to a human getting to close is for the lead buffalo to take a threatening stance to try to tell the human that they are too close and need to back away. The other response is rather more extreme.
As this tourist learned the hard way, buffalo will attack humans (as they would, I’m sure, any animal) that seem like they might be a threat. This one involved a calf, but if you approach a buffalo in an aggressive manner, they’ll defend themselves even without a nearby calf (and, by the way, “aggressive” includes smiling since this usually shows teeth in a manner not dissimilar to a growling lion). When momma buffalo attacked that tourist, it was not only defending the calf, but teaching the calf how to defend itself. That calf has learned by observation behaviors that should not be tolerated and how to respond. The defense of the calf, I am guessing, is as much about educating the calf as it is defending it.
This might seem obvious, but I kind of enjoy contemplating this dual-purpose response. Maybe I’m wrong; I’m certainly not an animal behaviorist, but it’s fun to think about.