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Wait ’til next year: Scheduled bison transfer from Brookfield to Lords Park delayed until January

A lone bisstands it's pen Lords Park Zoo Wednesday. Eventually biswill not be by itself as two more will move

A lone bison stands in it's pen at Lords Park Zoo Wednesday. Eventually, the bison will not be by itself, as two more will move in from Brookfield Zoo around January. The two were supposed to arrive on Wednesday, but due to complications, the move is postponed. December 12, 2012 | Michael Smart~Sun-Times Media

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Updated: January 14, 2013 6:54AM

ELGIN — Po-Key the Lords Park bison will have to wait until next year to have companions from her species.

Brookfield Zoo was set to deliver two other female bison Wednesday to form a mini-herd once again in Elgin. Po-Key had been without a pen mate since July, 2011 when Cahoya, a 26-year-old female died. Dakota, an 19-year-old male, passed away in December 2009. Po-Key was born in 1991.

But at mid-morning Elgin Parks Superintendent Jim Bell heard from Brookfield that one of the pair had a loose horn, an injury that is delaying the delivery until sometime in January.

In a phone conversation earlier in the week, Joan Daniels, associate curator of mammals at Brookfield Zoo, said the heading-to-Elgin bison are named Drew and Becky and are both 13 years old. In turn, they came to Brookfield from Peoria’s Wildlife Prairie State Park, where they were born.

Daniels said 13 is middle-aged for a bison in a zoo setting, where females can live to be 30 and males 18-20, with some females having reproduced in captivity at 26.

“We’re delighted to provide companionship for Elgin’s bison,” Daniels said.

Daniels mentioned that a bison is on the logo for Brookfield Zoo and the Chicago Zoological Society, which operates it. The zoo takes careful steps anytime it sends animals to any facility to make sure it is up to standards, Daniels said, and the process in donating the animals to Elgin involved site visits and talking with staff.

Elgin’s eventual new resident bison have been among those living in a one-acre spot that is part of Great Bear Wilderness, a 7.5-acre exhibit at Brookfield devoted to North American animals, which opened in 2010. A calf was born last year, so the move of the two animals to Elgin helps Brookfield adjust the size of its herd, Daniels said.

To get the two big bison to Lords Park, zoo staff will load them into a large, retrofitted trailer that is routinely used to move a variety of animals. The plan is to have two keepers drive the duo to Elgin. Positive reinforcement was used to teach them to shift and load for the moving process, and the animals will not be tranquilized for the transfer trip.

According to Daniels, the two bison are used to being around people, calm and stable, and very well-trained for their journey. Still, to keep the animals from being skittish, the public and media are being asked to stay away from viewing the process.

Daniels said the bison will be off-loaded one at a time to begin getting acclimated to new surroundings and to meet their new pen mate. The animals will be allowed to the come out at their own pace, with a fence line in between animals at first.

One of the three will come to be the dominant member of the trio, with that dominance mostly about food, Daniels said. As bison are herd animals, they are typically tolerant of each other, she noted, but it generally takes a couple days for such animals to get acclimated to each other.

As for Po-Key, “She will probably be excited to see other bison,” Daniels posited.

According to Daniels, a bison eats about half a bale of hay and a couple pounds of grain with dietary supplements each day, topped off with salt and mineral block licks, plus water to drink.

They are one of the easier animals to have in a zoo, because they are generally sturdy and healthy, have uncomplicated diets, and as natives to the region, are suited to the Illinois climate, Daniels said. According to the San Diego Zoo library website, female bison can weigh between 700 and 1,200 pounds. The animals can reach speeds of 35 mph when running.

While Brookfield Zoo frequently does exchanges and transfers with other facilities, this is the only bison transfer this year, Daniels said.

“We’re happy to have a nice facility to work with and pleased it is so close by,” Daniels said.

Bell said, “The city did not pay the Brookfield Zoo for the bison. I am not aware of anyone paying Brookfield for the two bison. It is my understanding the animals are being donated at no cost to Lords Park Zoo from the Brookfield Zoo.”

Bell said the budget for all the animal feed at the zoo was $6,000 for 2012 (there also are a few deer and elk at the zoo), and not all of those funds have been spent to date.

“The additional bison will have a minimum impact on the 2013 budget. It is expected that the feed will cost an additional $1,000 to $1,500 for 2013,” Bell said.

While the exact additional veterinarian bills will depend on how healthy the animals remain, Bell said yearly physicals will run $400 per bison.

The presence of the two transferred bison will bring full circle a story that came to the public’s attention in early 2009, when, facing budget decisions brought on by the recession, the city shut down the farm and petting zoo in Lords Park and pondered finding new homes for the larger animals kept on its grounds.

That spurred the formation of Friends of the Lords Park Zoo, the eventual building of community gardens in the park, and in the last half of 2010 the formation of a task force that met on and off for six months before making myriad suggestions for park improvements to the city council in December of that year.

“Replenishing our bison herd is as result of the successful partnership between the city of Elgin, Brookfield Zoo and Friends of Lords Park Zoo,” Friends advocate Laurie-Faith Gibson said. “We have been working to ensure the success of the transfer and generosity of the donation and coverage of costs by the Chicago Zoological Society (Brookfield) since we first got a behind the scenes tour (of Brookfield’s set-up) in August 2011.”

Gibson said Brookfield staff shared design information and lessons learned to help Elgin volunteers renovate the bison area in spring, 2012. The effort involved demolition done by volunteers from the Elgin United Civic Association and the Elgin community, which helped bring down the cost of the project.

In January, the city council created a unique partnership with a citizens group and agreed to pitch in more than $52,000 for the construction of a new fence and modifications to the bison pen.

In turn, according to Gibson, the Friends raised $17,000 to give to the city for the pen project, and the vendor (Rock Valley Fence of Loves Park) wrote off about $8,000 per volunteer efforts in April and May to complete the pen.

“We also had about 20 young men from Lutheran Social Services out in June to redo the garden areas within the farm zoo area and other light maintenance to keep the pens up to date this season,” Gibson said. “Some of the men are wards of the state and had never even seen a seed or barn or planted seedlings before.”

Gibson said the Friends group hopes to co-write a grant with the Lords Park Association to refurbish the elk enclosure next spring and to find funds to pay thee part-time workers and/or interns to try to reopen the farm zoo this summer. The intention would be to have educational programs run by the Elgin Public Museum in partnership with the Elgin Parks and Recreation department sometime next year, she said.

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