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Meet the neighbors: Brookfield bison arrive at Lords Park

Bison on video

For those bison-lovers who couldn’t make it to the park, the city’s multimedia production specialist Karla Persky was present to record the proceedings, with video and photos to be posted in the city’s Facebook page.

Video by Courier-News staff photographer Mike Smart also can be seen, at

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Updated: April 2, 2013 6:30AM

ELGIN — Po-Key, the Lords Park bison, finally has companions again — and Bet Olson and her toddler son Zain couldn’t be happier.

“This is such a big deal,” Olson said.

Olson and her stroller-held son watched workers from the Brookfield Zoo and the city unload two female bison named Becky and Drew late Thursday morning. The two bison had been set for delivery in mid-December, but Drew injured a horn, leading to the delay.

Po-Key had been without a penmate since July 2011 with the death of Cahoya, a 26-year-old female. Dakota, a 19-year-old male, passed away in December 2009. Po-Key was born in 1991.

In December, Joan Daniels, associate curator of mammals at Brookfield Zoo, told The Courier-News that Drew and Becky are both 13 years old and came to Brookfield from Peoria’s Wildlife Prairie State Park, where they were born.

Brookfield Zoo opened in 1934 and is operated by the Chicago Zoological Society on land owned by the Forest Preserve District of Cook County.

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

Elgin’s new residents were living in a 1-acre site that is part of Great Bear Wilderness, a 7.5-acre exhibit at Brookfield Zoo devoted to North American animals that opened in 2010. A calf was born in 2011, so the move of the two animals to Elgin helped Brookfield adjust the size of its herd.

Two Brookfield staffers brought the bison to Elgin in a large trailer the zoo routinely uses to move a variety of animals. Daniels said positive reinforcement was used to teach them to shift and load for the moving process, and the animals were not tranquilized for the transfer trip.

Getting acclimated

The animals appeared to adjust easily to their new surroundings, seemingly acting as a force multiplier in keeping geese out of the pen, at least for a short while. In less than 45 minutes the duo, was huddled next to Po-Key, who was being held in a smaller area toward the back of the larger pen as the animals got acclimated.

“The process went as smooth as could be. It was just perfect,” Elgin zookeeper Dwight Armistead said.

Daniels explained that one of the bison will come to be the dominant member of the trio, with that dominance mostly about food. As bison are herd animals, they are typically tolerant of each other, she noted. It generally takes a couple days for such animals to get comfortable with each other.

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

They are one of the easier animals to have in a zoo, because they are generally sturdy, 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 Po-Key is probably not that fast, zoo advocate Laurie-Faith Gibson said there is video on YouTube of Po-Key running along the pen with a dog outside the fence — something she can now do with her own kind.

Gibson has been involved with zoo issues since 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.

Zoo friends

That spurred the formation of Friends of the Lords Park Zoo. The group was behind 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.

While watching the new herd form Thursday, Olson said she was a Facebook friend of the grass-roots group. When she and her husband moved from southern California to Illinois six years ago, they chose the home they did in part because of its closeness to Lords Park and its zoo.

“We come here (near the bison pen) at least once a week in good weather,” Olson said.

Gibson thanked the zoo for donating the bison and sharing 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 2012, the city council created a unique partnership with a citizen’s group and agreed to pitch in more than $52,000 for the construction of a new fence and modifications to the bison pen at Lords Park.

In turn, according to Gibson, the Friends raised $17,000 to give the city for the pen project, and the vendor (Rock Valley Fence of Loves Park) wrote off about $8,000 in exchange for volunteer efforts in April and May to complete the pen. In June, about 20 young men from Lutheran Social Services helped redo the garden areas within the farm zoo area.

Gibson said the Friends’ next project might be to try to replenish a small elk herd held in another area of the park.

According to city Parks Superintendent Jim Bell, the budget for all the animal feed at the zoo was $6,000 for 2012 (there also are a few deer and elk in the park). With the new arrivals, it’s expected that the feed will cost an additional $1,000 to $1,500 for 2013.

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

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