When I began my training as a Zoo Volunteer in 2012, the big celebrity was a young polar bear cub by the name of Hudson. He turned one less than a month before I came on board, but I had visited him many times in the year he had been alive. Not as often as some of my friends, mind you, but several times. When he departed for Winnipeg’s Assiniboine Park Zoo the following February to be the rock star poster boy for their fundraising campaign for the future “Journey to Churchill” exhibit, he left more than a few broken hearts behind. Sarah and I had already planned to visit some of her family in Kenora that summer, so we immediately included a day at the Zoo in our plans. To my great surprise and delight, I discovered upon encountering Hudson in his new home that he recognized my scent from the times I had visited him in Toronto, looking up from his toy when I reached the fence and sniffing the air fiercely, periodically looking directly at me.
It was great seeing the Toronto Zoo’s favourite son in his new digs, and wonderful to be able to speak to one of his new Keepers there. Although he was the only polar bear living there right after he arrived, he was soon joined by many more friends as the new exhibit took shape – one of whom was his little brother, Humphrey, who made the trip to the Prairies two years after Hudson. We haven’t yet made it back to see that gorgeous tundra exhibit, but we certainly intend to do so soon. But I’m very glad we made at least that first trip, as the Assiniboine Park Zoo was a lovely little place, with several species of animals that we don’t have in Toronto. But it was one species we do have here – albeit a different subspecies – that provided me with the photo for this month’s featured animal.
The very first animal we encountered upon entering the Zoo was a “non-inventory” Richardson’s ground squirrel; immediately after that, however, we came upon the American bison exhibit. The subspecies at the Toronto Zoo is the wood bison; the animals in Winnipeg are of the prairie bison type. These are very similar to the wood bison but smaller in stature with a different centre of gravity: their heads don’t “stick out” so far over their front legs. (More information on the differences may be found here and here.) This would go a long way to explain why I thought the bison I saw were quite young, when in fact this month’s model was eight years old. They had a lot of room to roam in their exhibit, and at first I didn’t notice anything odd about this particular herd. I was leaning on the fence, just watching some of the faraway animals mosey about slowly when Sarah’s Dad came over to me and pointed out the handsome guy who was at the feeding trough to my right, and whom I hadn’t yet noticed. “Very cool,” he said. “A white bison. A Spirit Bison! They are very rare and important to the First Nations people.”
Now, when you look at the photo here on the right, you can be forgiven for wondering just exactly how I managed to miss the presence of this guy. I pride myself on noticing things and I have pretty decent peripheral vision, but I guess I just wasn’t expecting any other colours of bison to appear there. But when I turned to look at what Sarah’s Dad was describing, I found myself staring at one of the most beautiful and fascinating creatures I had ever seen. I love spending time with the wood bison at the Toronto Zoo; I’d enjoyed seeing prairie bison on the plains of Manitoba and Saskatchewan in travels of my youth. I find these creatures spiritually fulfilling, these gentle giants with their soft eyes and slow, lumbering pace belying their enormous bulk – American bison bulls can weigh up to a metric tonne. Followers of my Grumpy Penguin page on Facebook will know how much I enjoyed my bison encounters at Parc Safari the past two summers. But nothing will ever compare with my first sighting of a “white buffalo” or “Spirit Bison.” You could have knocked me over with a feather.
I knew at the time (because I was told at the time) that this was a very special thing to witness; a rarity that is considered very fortunate to see among the First Nations people. But I honestly had no concept of how rare it truly was. When I chose the photo for this month’s page, I searched the internet for an idea of the handsome beast’s name. I discovered he was named “Blizzard,” but why he has this name is part of an amazing story, one in which we learn that there are only three Spirit Bison in the entire province of Manitoba: Blizzard, his daughter, and her son.
Blizzard’s story begins in June of 2005 when he was born into a big herd of plains bison in Custer State Park, South Dakota. When the Curator for the Assiniboine Park Zoo heard about this calf early the next year, he arranged to bring it to his Zoo. When the cute little bundle arrived in March, 2006 in a blinding snowstorm, he was immediately given his name – Blizzard. When word got out of this important new arrival, Elders of the local First Nations reached out to the Zoo to explain his significance and ask to be allowed to perform welcoming rituals for him. The link I posted at the top of this paragraph will take you to a much more detailed version of the events; please do check it out.
In April, 2009 Blizzard sired three calves in Winnipeg. In a wonderful turn of events, two of these were white. In March of the following year, one of these white calves – along with her brown brother – was gifted by the City of Winnipeg to the Sioux Valley Dakota Nation near Brandon, Manitoba. This was a tremendously important gesture from a cultural position, and was very gratefully received by the First Nations People. This had all happened before I even met Blizzard in 2013, and I had no idea of the significance of the handsome bison I was watching casually eating his lunch. But there was still more to come in this story. Three years later, Blizzard’s daughter gave birth to her own white bull at the Sioux Valley Dakota Nation, sparking another pilgrimage to see the new Spirit Bison. As it has been stated that these three are the only white buffalo currently living in Manitoba, I hope this means that Blizzard’s other snowy offspring has moved to a new home and is still with us.
What a fascinating story that came out of this photo that I took five years ago and decided – against intense competition – to use in this year’s calendar. One of the things I love the most about doing what I do – taking and sharing photos, and spending time with so many different animals to be able to share their stories – is that I never stop learning. I have always said I discover something new every single time I visit the Toronto Zoo. I hope that never changes.
Next up: one of the oldest residents of the Toronto Zoo – and one of the most popular. Hope you can join me!