The `bison' debate could really leave you buffaloed

Confusion, discord over name have long history

April 29, 2005|By Anica Butler | Anica Butler,SUN STAFF

When visitors to Yellowstone National Park come looking for the "buffalo," park rangers gently set the tourists straight.

"We definitely know what they're talking about," said Cheryl Matthews, a spokeswoman for the park. But, she added, the rangers let the sightseers know that the animal they are seeking is, to be precise, the American bison.

Just like the nine animals that made a getaway from a Baltimore County farm Tuesday.

Still, as spectators watched police officers corral the woolly beasts on a suburban tennis court, bison was a word that seldom was heard. And when it was over, the officers involved in the roundup were dubbed, on a poster, "Baltimore County's Buffalo Brigade."

Are they?

No. One frequently asked question on www.bisoncen reads:

Q: What is the difference between bison and buffalo?

A: Scientifically, the term buffalo is incorrect for the North American species. ... However, common usage has made the term buffalo an acceptable synonym for the American bison."

Members of the National Bison Association think it best to embrace the slang.

The organization in Colorado represents bison producers, processors and enthusiasts who "don't want to not call it buffalo," Assistant Director Jim Matheson said yesterday. "They don't want to deter consumers."

Besides, would pining for "a home where the bison roam" sound quite right?

David Dary, author of The Buffalo Book: The Full Saga of the American Animal, laughed when asked about the matter. He said the U.S. Mint's description of the 2005 "American bison" nickel offended him.

"Let's not be politically correct and try to change tradition in America," he said. "Americans have historically called it a buffalo since the very early days."

More than one theory

There's more than one theory why that came to be. One is that French explorers in North America referred to the bison as les boeufs, for oxen or beef, and over time the name was distorted into buffalo. Another theory has it that Europeans who saw bison for the first time thought they looked similar to buffalo in Asia and Africa.

Those, such as the water buffalo, are the "true buffalo," said Vern Anderson, a bison researcher in North Dakota. But he is OK with calling a bison a buffalo.

Others insist that that is just plain wrong.

"To many people, `buffalo' is the popular name often used to describe North American bison," the Bison Specialist Group states on its Web site. "However, this is a misnomer."

The difference can be a serious issue. "It matters a lot to taxonomists and animal people," said Mary Denver, head veterinarian at the Maryland Zoo in Baltimore.

Denver and other zoo staff members were called upon Tuesday in case officers needed help subduing the Baltimore County herd. Denver said she asked repeatedly whether the beasts on the loose were in fact buffalo or bison. According to Denver, it would take more tranquilizers to knock out a buffalo.

"They have a different metabolic rate," she said. Once she knew what they were dealing with, she said, "We knew what drugs to bring and what dose to prepare."

A graduate student in Kansas who studies insects did not approve of seeing online reports Tuesday that "buffalo" were on the loose.

"As a scientist, I'm trained to be exact," David Levin said in an interview yesterday. "I didn't get all bent out of shape, but it's wrong. They're two different organisms."

`Buffalo burgers'

Still, during a ceremony Wednesday honoring the police officers who captured the bison in Pikesville, Baltimore County Executive James T. Smith Jr. joked about the temptation to hunger for "buffalo burgers." The owner of the animals has said the bison are headed for the slaughterhouse.

But there have been offers - including one from New York and another from South Dakota - to take the animals off the owner's hands and keep them from consumption.

But if they do end up on a dinner plate, the issue of nomenclature might come up again. If so, a chef might take a cue from Jon Lovitch.

At Savage River Lodge in Western Maryland, where they serve grilled tournedos of boar, hearth-baked game hen and kosher salt-cured antelope, chef Lovitch said he has prepared the meat of the bison and its related genera.

But he doesn't go with the vernacular when serving the North American animal.

"Bison," he said, "sounds better on the menu."

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