A behind the scenes exclusive at the Potawatomi Zoo.
When we think of American heroes, who comes to mind? War heroes? Trailblazers? Rebels? Social warriors? When legend and persona outgrow identity, leaving icons echoing through the songs and stories of patriotic heroism, who do we think of? Abe Lincoln? John Henry? Sacagawea? The list is massive, and varies from region to region across the country. Regions voicing the sentiments for the people that created their cultural foundations. So what about the animal icons of the United States?
The majesty of the bald eagle has represented the US in symbol since 1782 (Ben Franklin wanted the wild turkey…gobble gobble). What if I told you another animal forged the very foundation of our country and physically shaped the land that we still reside on today (I think you see where I’m headed). Maybe not holding the majesty of the bald eagle, but an animal with grit, hardiness, and tenacity that’s rumbled through the history of North America long before thoughts of the Constitution. The true American hero – the American bison.
The Potawatomi Nation once stretched the Great Lakes regions of Michigan, Illinois, Wisconsin, and Northern Indiana before being tragically relocated West of the Mississippi during the infamous Trail of Death – an unforgivable blemish in American history. Like the Potawatomi, bison were drastically and negatively impacted by western expansion. Once an estimated 50 million bison occupied a huge stretch of the United States, but by 1884…
there were less than 350 bison left in the U.S.
This is all really depressing right? But this isn’t a story of despair. This is a tale of redemption. As the Potawatomi Zoo, Indiana’s oldest zoo, sits near the banks of the St. Joe River as an honor in name and spirit to the rich cultural history of the Potawatomi Nation, American bison have since flourished with the help of some intense conservation efforts over the last century. There are now an estimated half a million bison on American soil, with 15,000 of them considered wild and non-contained. And 4 of them, reside at the Potawatomi Zoo!
The Potawatomi Zoo serves as the zoological center and eco-pinnacle (made up word) of South Bend, Indiana (home to the Notre Dame Fighting Irish). Though they’re a small 23 acre facility, this little zoo packs a heavy punch in terms of conservation and guest experience with over 500 pretty rad, unexpected animals including critically endangered Amur tigers, okapi (one of my favorite animals!), southern white rhinos, and yes, American bison! I had a chance to meet these mighty mammals firsthand. These are there stories. (DUN DUN).
“You respect the presence of bison when you’re in their domain. Bison are big. Wherever they go, they move with force. They let you know they’re there. And you are in their space, not the other way around.”
After getting all the proper approval, and proving (or fooling) that I was not a crazy person (I am), my photographer/zoo adventure buddy, Randall, and I were granted access to some awesome behind the scenes areas of the Potawatomi Zoo! After meeting several of the zoo residents including a Jersey Cow named Sampson who alone was worth the 2 hour drive, we ventured through two steel doors, into the bison indoor holding…
Lauren was gracious enough to show us the process of bringing the bison into their holding area for their morning feeding. Potawatomi Zoo has 4 bison, 2 males and 2 females – Geronimo, Bobbie, Azul and Zipper. Geronimo was the first to come into the holding area for morning grain and some apple slices. They enter thru a chute that also works as a scale. This scale puts in some WORK because he was an absolute UNIT of an animal! I was told Geronimo weighed in the realm of 1,800 Lbs… That is nearly one ton of bull bison!
All four of these grunting, bellowing, primal, gorgeous animals came in to eat. They didn’t pay too much attention to their new visitors, unless we offered up an apple slice. It was truly spectacular to see the trust that was maintained between the animals, and Lauren, the Keeper. If there was a big take away from this trip, it was respect. You respect the presence of bison when you’re in their domain. Bison are big. Wherever they go, they move with force. They let you know they’re there. And you are in their space, not the other way around. I respect these 4 astonishing bison at Potawatomi Zoo, and am grateful that Teddy Roosevelt respected wild America enough to want to preserve generations of American bison before them and the land they occupied. We must continue to protect wild places to ensure a future for animals like the mighty bison.
When I was a kid, there was a bison farm near my grandma’s house. Whenever we went to visit Grandma-ma, I would INSIST that we take the long way. We’d stop and I would just stare in wonder. Something about bison just resonated with me… As an adult, here I am driving hours away to the interact with these same Hagrid-like animals, and tell people just how freakin’ cool they really are! Some things never change.
The 4th of July means lots of different things to different people. And while America isn’t quite normal yet, maybe it never will be, maybe it shouldn’t be…there is one constant – perseverance. Perseverance to overcome a global pandemic, to fight for rights and social justice, to continue a battle to save our planet, our resources, and ourselves. To persevere is the real American spirit, and this is represented in no better story than that of the American bison – a true American hero.
I’d like to say a heartfelt THANK YOU to Lauren and the Potawatomi Zoo staff for accommodating myself and photographer/zoo adventure buddy, Randall, as we all still navigate the wake of COVID-19. Thanks for allowing this story to be told! When you feel comfortable getting out and about again, I highly suggest a trip to this zoo. They’re doing GREAT things! Proceeds from ZooKeeper Kyle merch through July will benefit the Greater Yellowstone Coalition. For more information on American bison, visit the Smithsonian National Zoo and Conservation Biology Institute.