Thursday, January 12, 2012

How Did She Do That?

I try to make sure I get out to see the water buffalo at least twice a day. In winter, it's a necessary part of making sure they have enough hay to eat and access to unfrozen water. And removing the digested hay/water from their bedding (i.e., mucking out the barn). If it's ridiculously cold, then I'm out there at least three times a day, breaking up ice in the water tank. Fortunately, this winter has been unusually mild. Not that I mind visiting the buffalo--it's just nicer to do it when the weather is cooperating.

When the buffs are grazing in the warm months and don't need my daily visits, I still get out there as often as I can. Mostly for my mental health. Hanging out with them always makes me feel better. Well, almost always. Sometimes they give me a heart attack.

Like on New Year's Eve. Jim and I had spent much of the week trying to clear a fence line for some new pasture. The area--part of what we call the old orchard for the mix of old and seedling apple trees that we keep uncovering--is extremely steep and covered with vines of every kind. The middle is still largely grass but the pine forest on the north end is trying to extend its reach into what once was pasture. There are large sections that are nothing but blackberry brambles with the occasional multiflora rose making a thorny thicket over the moss-covered clay soil. It's quite treacherous to walk up and down and really works those muscle groups that languish during long hours in front of the computer. That said, it is probably the only reason we are losing weight in the wintertime (a first!).

At first, we simply pushed out the fence line of the current pasture which borders the old orchard. That gave the buffs a taste of the steep slopes along with a boatload of honeysuckle vines growing over the blackberry canes. Honeysuckle leaves are some of the few fresh foods available to the buffs this time of year and they've exhausted their supply in the main pasture areas. As soon as we let them in, they began tearing into the vines, seemingly impervious to the blackberry thorns. We continued our work on the next section and then took a lunch break.

This might be a good time to remind you of what a buffalo looks like since I don't have any photos of what happened next. This is Effie:

When we came back, Eschol was grazing and Audrey was standing next to Effie who seemed to be maxing and relaxing on her side. Odd thing was, she didn't lift her head as we approached. It's not unusual for the buffs to lie on their side, but Effie is pretty vigilant about checking out anyone who approaches. As we got closer, we realized something was not right. As we walked up to the gate, she jumped up on three legs and we saw the problem: her right front leg had somehow gotten hooked over her horn and she couldn't get it free.

At moments like these, the brain both freezes and goes into hyperdrive as it tries to process what it's seeing (blink, blink) while starting to run through all the scenarios for how this problem could be solved or get much, much worse. Meanwhile, this 1300+ pound animal is thrashing around on three legs, shaking her head as hard as she can with a leg hung up on a horn, while trying to maintain her balance on a uneven, sloped surface. Despite the presence of the bull, we knew we had to get in there with her to help. So, we turned off the electric fence and jumped in.

She seemed to understand that we were there to help and she lay down where we could work on freeing her leg. Naturally, Eschol came over to help. Well, that's what Jim says. I think he saw an opportunity to play. I tried to keep him and his horns occupied while Jim tried to get Effie to turn her head just so while he tugged on her leg. No dice. However she got her leg into that position, she just couldn't relax enough to get it back out. We started to worry that there might have to be a horn amputation. We really didn't want to do that and aren't equipped to do it anyway. Maybe if both of us could be working on her. I went to set up the lines to cross the other buffs back into the main pasture.

As soon as I turned my back, Eschol moved in. Something he did to Effie made her turn her head at just the odd angle Jim needed to free the leg. Hooray! Whether he meant to or not, Eschol helped to save the day. Effie jumped up on all fours and proceeded to thank us with a muchness of licking. She didn't seem any worse for wear and we all breathed a huge sigh of relief.

How she got herself in that mess to begin with we may never know. Our best guess is that she was on a steep slope with her front legs splayed out on the up slope ahead of her. She probably put her head down between her legs as she tried to hook her horns in the vines so she could pull them up by the root (a favorite trick of the buffs which usually results in them wearing a stunningly large crown of vines). In the process of shaking her head around to loop ever more vines in her horns, she somehow hooked her hoof. No doubt she panicked at the sensation and ended up extending her leg, making it tougher to get it free.

I'm not sure if you can see it from this angle but Effie's horns (she's on the right) come out away from her head a bit more than Audrey's whose horns are more tightly curled and swept back. That combined with a great deal of leg flexibility (illustrated here by Audrey's muddy eye resulting from her ability to paw at her eye) seems to have been her undoing. We hope she has learned her lesson. Mostly we're just relieved that she's fine and all three of the buffs were in fine shape yesterday as the rain lifted for just long enough for us to see the most brilliant rainbow (briefly double).

OK, and one more picture. This time of our hero (on this day--we won't discuss his subsequent work tearing off the barn door): Eschol.


  1. Talk about the horns of a dilemma! Nicely done, you two, and Eschol too, for catalyzing the solution.

    Do you ever feel threatened by the buffs, intentionally on their part or not?

  2. Eschol does pose a real threat from time to time. Although I suspect he is just treating us like part of the herd (playing rough, rearranging the pecking order), his occasional desire to push us around with his enormous head/horns is something our human bodies just aren't built to withstand. I've gotten pretty good at reading his mood to know whether it's safe to be near him. Even so, I never take my eyes off him (never turn your back on a bull) and I don't let him get between me and my escape route. Typically I carry some sort of implement with me (e.g., pitchfork) to help ward him off if he does catch me off guard.

    As for the girls, I don't feel threatened but I know that given their size, they can do a lot of damage accidentally. If I'm not paying attention and that enormous skull swings around quickly and makes contact with my head, I'm going to lose a lot of teeth and perhaps consciousness as well (same as with a horse). Jim nearly had his larynx dislodged when both girls were enthusiastically licking his neck. Powerful tongues those gals have.... And if we're giving tummy rubs (which they frequently ask for) we are careful to make sure they don't roll over on our feet. Likewise, when sitting in the pasture with the girls, if one of them lays down and puts her head in my lap, I keep a hand ready to guide the horns to a safe spot should she shift around.

    The buffs seem to trust us but we don't take that for granted. We've learned not to surprise them especially in their living quarters (Effie once pushed me out of the barn when I showed up in the dark lower level, wearing a dark coat and hat she hadn't seen before--as soon as we were in the daylight, she recognized me and stopped pushing).

    Mostly, we're grateful for their easygoing and affectionate nature but mindful that if they feel threatened, they are quite capable of defending themselves (dogs and coyotes take note).

  3. Thanks for the extremely clear response, Alison. Their sheer bulk is daunting.