It was a buffaloing sight, but bison are born jumpers

April 28, 2005|By Tom Dunkel | Tom Dunkel,SUN STAFF

We're used to them looking majestically inert, a prejudice perhaps owed to the buffalo nickel.

From the old cowboy song, we know they like to roam.

But leap over a tennis net like some giddy Wimbledon champ?

Those nine American bison -- often referred to as buffalo -- that bolted Gerald "Buzz" Berg's Baltimore County farm Tuesday are now media stars.

Their jail break got Page One coverage in major newspapers and made national TV news. And the comic image stuck in everyone's mind is that one frisky runaway high-hurdling the tennis net.

FOR THE RECORD - An article in the Today section in Thursday's editions of The Sun misidentified Mary Denver, head veterinarian at the Maryland Zoo in Baltimore.
The Suns regrets the error.

"I didn't know they could do that," says Mary Decker, head veterinarian at the Maryland Zoo in Baltimore. "I would guess a full grown one would not be able to."

But, then, Decker has never worked with bison. She also lives on the East Coast. Out West, that tennis-net stunt wouldn't raise an eyebrow. In fact, bison might as well be the decathletes of the Great Plains.

"They can jump a 5-foot fence from a standstill," says Keith Young, a ranger in Yellowstone National Park, which is home to 3,500 bison. "They can jump and spin 180 degrees in midair. The bison being as big as they are, it's kind of neat."

Vern Anderson has been studying bison for about 15 years at North Dakota State University's research center in Carrington, N.D. He's never had occasion to use a lawn chair for herding purposes. The emergency-response team trying to round up Berg's bison were "naive" that way.

"They're not slow. They're not dumb. They are very strong and they're fast," says Anderson, noting bison can hit cruising speeds of 40 mph.

"Jumping a tennis net," he adds, "wouldn't even raise their heart rate."

Bison have an inordinate amount of what Anderson describes as "quick-response muscles," much more than cattle. They're also massively built in the chest and shoulders, which gives them a kind of pole-vaulting advantage in getting off the ground.

"Basically, they're muscle on bone. There's virtually no fat on those animals," says Scott Barao, professor of animal science at the University of Maryland, College Park. "They're lean, mean, running machines."

Humans? Well, put it this way: Maurice Clarett, the former Ohio State running back who was just drafted by the NFL Denver Broncos, has a 36.5-inch vertical jump. Don't bother asking him to hop over a 5-foot fence from a standing position.

A tennis net is 3 feet high in the middle. Matt Lennox, a tennis pro at Greenspring Racquet Club, says he can clear it no problem. But most people can't.

"I've seen kids do it," says Lennox, "and I have to go pick them up off the ground."

In short, based on what bison experts like Young and Anderson have seen, it would have been a much bigger news story if one of those emergency response workers had bounded over the net.

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