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Wilma, Buffalo Zoo’s resident bison, gets a new herd

Wilma, the lone surviving “buffalo” at the Buffalo Zoo for the past 16 months, is now the head of a small herd.

Three young bison – Caroline, Dolores and Susan – have joined her at the newly-refurbished 30,000 square-foot bison exhibit space that runs along Delaware Park’s ring road. It is the first time there have been this many bison at the zoo since the early 2000s.

“We are very excited for the zoo and for the community to get new companions for Wilma,” said Lisa Smith, the zoo’s chief zoological officer. 

The zoo’s newest residents, who arrived in October from the Wilds in Cumberland, Ohio, a zoological safari park affiliated with the Columbus Zoo, come as the board of trustees continues its search for a new president and chief executive officer after Norah Fletchall’s sudden departure in September.

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“To have a young herd back is exceptionally important,” Buffalo Zoo interim President and CEO Lisa Smith said of the bison, who were all born in spring 2021 and share the same father. “We have beautiful views from the park and the zoo side, and it’s just going to be a great attraction into the future.”

The four bison are mixing well together after some initial snags, she said.

Buffalo Zoo bison exhibit

Caroline, one of three new American bison, munches on alfalfa with her new herd in their newly renovated exhibit at the Buffalo Zoo on Friday, Nov. 25, 2022.

Wilma was more likely to accept younger bison than older ones, Smith said in April, when the zoo announced plans to bring back the herd and make the renovations.

“An older one might challenge her, while younger ones will let her lead the herd, which she likes to do,” Smith said at the time.

“They’re just getting along fabulously, better than we could have hoped,” Smith said Friday.

Lisa Smith, the interim president and CEO of The Buffalo Zoo, talks about the newly renovated American bison exhibit, which has three new additions to the herd. Three half-sisters, Dolores, Susan and Caroline, arrived in October from The Wilds, a zoological safari park outside of Columbus, Ohio, and joined Wilma, the 29-year-old “queen.”

The site has new fencing, gates and management systems to help move the animals in a safer manner, and a chute system that will allow them to get vaccinated or have their hoofs trimmed without being sedated.

Improvements were also made to the bison barn.

Buffalo Zoo bison exhibit

Zookeeper Don McGuire feeds alfalfa to the new herd of American bison in their newly renovated exhibit at the Buffalo Zoo on Friday, Nov. 25, 2022.

The cost of renovations and to bring the bison to Buffalo was $500,000, Smith said. A contribution from the 716 Foundation provided the seed money that allowed the zoo to raise the rest of the funds through a 2021 year-end appeal. The foundation also chose their names. 

Wilma was the last survivor – after Rose died in 2021 – of three sisters who grew up in the Buffalo Zoo. At age 29, she is one of the oldest bison in captivity and is in excellent health for her age.

Zoo trustee Jonathan Dandes said he is excited to see more and younger bison back at the zoo. 

“There has been more movement by this herd than I’ve seen in the past 15 years because of their age,” Dandes said.

It is estimated that more than 60 million bison lived across the open plains of the United States and Canada in 1700. By 1889, they were nearly extinct, with only 835 bison remaining. The main slaughter of bison occurred with the building of the Union Pacific Railroad, when hunters shot them for sport.

Buffalo Zoo bison exhibit

Zookeeper Don McGuire has a moment with Wilma, the 29-year-old American bison, after giving her a snack as she settles in with her new herdmates in their newly renovated exhibit at the Buffalo Zoo on Friday, Nov. 25, 2022.

Bison have been reintroduced in a few national parks, including Yellowstone in Wyoming and Badlands in South Dakota, but they are sometimes shot to death by ranchers when wandering beyond park boundaries. 

Bison have been incorrectly referred to as buffalo since early settlers to the U.S. did so because of their faint resemblance to the generally smaller Cape and water buffalo found in Africa, Asia and India. Both are part of the cow family, but are different and different-looking animal species.

Dandes, the Buffalo Zoological Society’s immediate past chair, said the search for a new president and CEO is progressing, with a deadline of today for requests for qualifications for prospective applicants.

“We are going to evaluate them literally over the weekend, and will pick a search firm, I hope, by the next couple of days and then begin the active recruitment and hiring of a new permanent president and CEO,” Dandes said. “We were very excited by the level of interest we got from across the country.

“This is a watershed moment for us in terms of our next steps and how we look at our future.”

Mark Sommer covers preservation, development, the waterfront, culture and more. He’s also a former arts editor at The News.