CORVALLIS – As a well-known member of the Corvallis community, Tonka the bison had lived his life always surrounded by people, but until recently he had never seen another bison.
Tonka was born a twin in Wisconsin and then purchased and brought to Montana where he worked as a rodeo performer.
When his performing days were over, he was sold again and moved to Corvallis – where some community members would often stop by and pet and give Tonka treats – sometimes not so healthy treats like a can of beer.
Tonka broke through the fence where he was being kept on January 11 and made his way to Corvallis Elementary School.
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His escape worried parents in the area and caught the attention of Jay McCleary — a lawyer and the founder of Bela Animal Legal Defense and Rescue in Victor.
When Jay moved to Montana, he became friends with Troy Wester, the ranch manager of Bitterroot Bison.
“I’ve dealt with Jay for a while, and we’re pretty good friends, and he saved some of our bottle babies, and he’s done an awesome job with them,” said Wester.
Together the two went to meet Tonka and decided it would be best if he returned home with McCleary.
“For bison to be happy they really need to be with other bison because they are herd animals and if they’re alone they tend to get in trouble,” said McCleary
Tonka relocated to Victor where he now has a herd of his own.
All of the bison in this herd were bottle fed by humans as babies and bottle fed bison typically cannot be re-introduced to a standard herd.
“He is completely human imprinted so for me to bring him to a herd of bison would not be good for him because we have big 2800 pound bulls and they can pick that out right away,” said Wester.
Tonka fits in well with this band of misfits.
“He’s adjusted perfectly. I mean when he first came he came running in, and we didn’t separate them or anything like that. Just let them run around,” McCleary said.
“And the female that was here just a second ago is kind of like his girlfriend now. She was just chasing him all over. He’s the new head honcho here,” he added.
Though Tonka has a happy new home there’s a lot to keep in mind if you’re considering bringing in a bison into the family.
“I get a lot of calls from people that want to buy one or two bison, and I don’t sell one or two bison. I only sell five at a time now because I’ve had problems with one or two,” Wester said.
“Little things they don’t think about is like how much land they need. You know when they get bigger they eat 25 pounds of grass a day,” he continued.
“I mean, they can be aggressive and dangerous you know, and that’s just their mentality they’re just a protective, they protect the herd that’s why they are that way.”