Heads and Tails Acrylic Painting of Bisons By The GYPSY

The Artist Life: Heads And Tails

My hands were wrapped around his throat as I beat his head up against the ground. It was Easter Sunday Of 1984 and the security guard who was in my grasp was a moment away from death. And I was a moment away from a manslaughter charge. What had brought me to this moment had started a week before.

I sat in El Paso Zoo director Robert Fulton’s office, with me was Zoo Foreman David Benavidez. Going forward in my chair, “I’m sure you understand my concern”, I said to the zoo director. Mr. Fulton nodded his head, “I certainly do”, he said, “David dropped the ball.” Mr. Fulton was not talking about David Benavides, He was talking about another David who, for a brief period, had been the zoo’s Curator.

David was an American that had worked at a zoo In New Zealand. He had wanted to get back to America and when the curator’s position at El Paso opened, he applied. David was hired based on his experience and his degree in zoology. However, it was a mistake. To hire him. He was a chair warmer and nothing else. His time that the zoo had been disruptive and unproductive. David had spent most of his time at the zoo looking for another position at another zoo.

When Mr. Fulton found out what he was doing and how disruptive he had been to the staff It was suggested that he resigned. Now we were in between curators and the problem that I had brought up to David several times still had not been addressed; The Bisons hoofs needed to be trimmed.

Our Bison, Heads and Tails, lived in the hoof stock exhibit at the North End of the zoo. The exhibit was a hard packed caleche, otherwise known as desert concrete. Due to the lack of foresight on the designer of the exhibit there was no gravel mixed into the caleche. This caused the problem of hoof overgrowth in animals like the Bison.

The exhibit was due for a major makeover and that problem would be addressed at that time but for now the major concern was getting the animals’ hoofs trimmed back. Their hoofs had severely overgrown and walking for the Bison had become increasingly difficult and painful.

As the Lead Keeper for the exhibit, it was my job to bring these concerns to the curator who had failed to act. David had said arrangements were being made when in fact no arrangements had been made at all. Now here I sat in the Directors office working on a plan of action with him and the Zoo Foreman.

Mr. Fulton contacted the Zoo’s Veterinarian, Doctor Hutchinson, who was also El Paso Counties Health Department Director. The Doctor’s schedule was heavy, but he said he would be out Thursday morning to tranquilize the Bison and get their hoofs trimmed back. Mr. Fulton asked me to coordinate with the Zoo’s Vet Technician Claudia Newman. He asked David to get together a team of Keepers to assist.

Thursday morning April 19, 1984, broke bright and Sunny. The Director, Forman, Vet Tech, three Keepers and I had just assisted Doctor Hutchinson in trimming the hooves of our male Bison, Heads. A male Bison can weigh somewhere in the neighborhood of 2,000 pounds that is why it was all hands-on deck to assist the vet.

After Doctor Hutchinson had tranquilized Heads, a rope was thrown around either horn. I took one rope and Tony Delgado; the Lead Keeper for the Sea Lions took the other rope. It was up to the two strongest Keepers, me and Tony, to keep the ropes tight and keep the large Bison from swinging his head. Bear Keeper Diane and Large Cat Keeper George got on either side of Heads to push in on his torso and force him to stay upright. David held up each leg for the Vet to trim and file the hoof while Claudia assisted by handing the doctor whatever tools he needed.

The work was hot, dirty, strenuous and dangerous but thanks to the skill and professionalism of all involved the hoof trimming went quick and without incident. It was now time to trim the cow’s hoofs. Tails had been watching from the transfer exhibit and seemed a little agitated. The transfer exhibit was next to the exhibit where we had trimmed the hoofs of Heads. It had a connecting gate, and we would move the Bison back and forth between the 2 exhibits daily so that we could safely clean the exhibit they had occupied the day before.

After giving Heads the antidote Tails was tranquilized. We followed the same procedure we had done with Heads, and all went well or so we thought. Everyone exited the exhibit as Doctor Hutchinson administered the antidote. The doctor exited the exhibit, and I locked the service gate and that I when I saw it, Tails front legs buckled and then her back legs went out from under her. All 1,000 pounds of this Bison Cow crashed to the ground and onto her side.

Everyone held their breath for a moment to see if she would get back up, she didn’t. I unlocked the gate and me and Doctor Hutchinson rushed to her side. Using his stethoscope, he checked her heart. He looked at me with a look of concern on his face, “Her heartbeat is thready.” He yelled for Claudia to go to the clinic and get a livestock syringe full of adrenaline. Cludia returned within just a couple of minutes. Doctor Hutchinson took the syringe and plunged it into the cow’s chest.

The reaction was immediate as Tails came up into an upright position, still not standing but upright. She started to wobble back and forth. The exhibit slopped down towards a gutter at the foot of a ten-foot-tall retaining wall. Tails started leaning more towards the downward slope and I put my shoulder into her shoulder and planted my feet. “GET MEHAY BALES!” I yelled. Everyone present including Doctor Hutchinson rushed into the service area and grabbed bales of Alfalfa hay. In no time Tails was surrounded by bales of hay 3 bales tall by two bales deep.

I had cocooned her to keep her in an upright position. Mr. Fulton had just got back from a meeting at city hall and stopped to see how everything was going. When he was told what had happened and my solution, he patted me on the back and said, “Quick thinking.” I thanked him and told him that I was going to stay with her. He allowed as that was a good idea. I gave David a list of things that needed to be done in my areas by the keepers under me. I dropped a hay bale into the shade of the hoof stock barn, sat upon it and started my long vigil.

I had left the ropes on her horns in case I needed to tug on her head to keep her from falling over. Several times through that long hot day I had to use those ropes. As zoo closing time approached there was still no change in her condition. Despite the antidote and adrenaline shot Tails was having a hard time recovering and I was very concerned.

Mr. Fulton came down to see how she was doing. “Not good”, I told him, “I am going to spend the night with her.” He nodded his head, “I think that would be a good idea. I’ll have Claudia bring over one of the cots from the clinic. I’ll go over the commissary and get you a gallon of water. Is there anything else you need?” I thought for a moment and said, “I could use a chicken sandwich and some fries. I don’t want to eat anything beef around Tails.” Mr. Fulton and I shared a laugh and he said he would take care of it.

Claudia delivered the cot, a pillow and blanket and Mr. Fulton delivered the gallon of water. He said he would be back in an hour or so with my dinner request. Around 7 O’clock Mr. Fulton showed back up with a McChicken Sandwich, Fries and a coke in the extra-large cup McDonalds calls a medium. He had changed out of his usual 3-piece suit and into a pair of jeans and light weight western shirt. He also had a McDonalds bag with the same order as mine. “Don’t tell anyone about this”, he grinned, “ever since my heart attack I’m supposed to eat healthy but sometimes… well you know.”

We sat on hay bales, eating the fast-food feast, talking zoo politics and watching our large “Fluffy Cow”. Around sunset Mr. Fulton said he had to get home. He walked into the barn and taking the phone off the receiver called over the zoo’s PA system for the night security guard Joe to come to the hoof stock barn. I cringed; I did not like Joe, and he did not like me.

On my first day at the zoo, he had tried to take the straight blade knife I carried off my hip. I had slapped back his hand and demanded to know what he thought he was doing. He said, “You are under arrest for carrying an illegal weapon on zoo grounds!” Before I could respond Mr. Fulton walked up and wanted to know what was going on. “This fool”, I said pointing at the security guard, “is trying to arrest me for carrying a knife.” Mr. Fulton said, “Joe, you do not have the power or authority to arrest anyone, only law enforcement can do that.” Turning to me Mr. Fulton asked, how long is that blade?” I responded, “Five inches.” Mr. Fulton nodded his head. “Joe Texas state law says that a person can carry a straight blade no longer that 5 and three quarters in length. Jim’s blade is well under that, so back off and leave him alone.”

I thought that was the end of the incident until two days later when I was leaving the zoo grounds for the day and Joe yelled out, “STOP RIGHT THERE!” I turned around to find Joe quickly approaching me with an El Paso Police Officer. Joe had a smug look on his face as the officer instructed me to place my hands on my head. The officer undid the snap on my sheath and withdrew the knife. “Guess who’s going to jail?” Joe gloated. “Not this gentleman,” the officer said as he showed the blade to the security guard pointing to the lettering by the hilt, “Shrade Co. 5” Tempered Steel Blade”. The officer handed the knife back to me hilt first. As Mr. Fulton walked up the officer addressed joe, “Texas law says that anyone can carry a straight blade up to five and three-quarters blade cutting length. He is within legal limits.”

Mr. Fulton apologized to the officer for the waste of his time. He told Joe to apologize not just to the officer but to me also. He then told Joe to go to his office and wait for him. Mr. Fulton said, “I am so sorry for Joe’s actions. Not a great way to welcome you to the zoo. Please excuse his over-enthusiasm, sometimes he is a little too diligent. Since I had told him to back off and he didn’t he will be receiving a write-up about this. If he bothers you any further, please let me know.” Joe and I hated each other from that moment on.

When Joe showed up in the hoof stock barn Mr. Fulton asked him, “How long does it take you to make your rounds?” Joe shrugged, “I don’t know, 30 maybe 45 minutes.” Mr. Fulton pointed to me, “Every time you come by here tonight, I want you to check with Jim and see if he needs a break.” Joe laughed. “What’s so funny?” the Zoo Director asked. “That’s a lot of breaks in 12 hours” Joe smirked. Mr. Fulton ignored Joe’s feeble attempt at humor and continued. “If Jim needs a break you are to stand here in the hoof stock barn near the phone. If you see Tails”, the Director pointed towards the distressed Bison Cow, “Start to wobble or try to gain her feet you call Jim back immediately.”

Joe looked towards Tails and said, “Kind of cuts into my job…” Mr. Fulton cut him off, “Your job is to do as you are told to do by your superiors. Let me remind you that as a Lead Keeper Jim is also your superior and as such you will assist him in any way, he instructs you to. Any questions?” Joe shook his head no and walked away.

“I don’t know what I am going to do about that guy.” The Director looked disgusted. “With civil service protections, it would take something major to can his ass.” Mr. Fulton turned his attention back to me. “Do you need anything else?” I told him no, that I was fine. The Director said, “Good, if you need anything you have my number. See you in the morning.”

I settled in for the long night ahead. I sat on the cot and watched Tails for an hour or so. At one point she started to wobble, and I went and pulled back on the left horn rope. This had the desired effect and she leaned back towards the upwards side of the exhibit. As I went back to the cot I looked towards the adjoining exhibit. Heads stood at the fence looking towards tails. I walked over to the fence and reaching through the chain link I scratched his nose and said, “She’ll be OK Big Guy.” He snorted and walked away to chew on some alfalfa hay. Joe had called out every time he came by the exhibit, which was actually once an hour not every 45 minutes. This gave me the opportunity to rise from my dozing state and check on Tails.

Around sunrise on Friday, April 20, 1984, the relief guard came on duty. When he came around by the exhibit, he hollered down, “What are you doing in there?” I hollered back, “Didn’t Joe tell you?” He shook his head no. I told him to come into the hoof stock barn and told him everything he needed to know. While the guard stood watch over Tails I headed to my office and started a pot of coffee. I relieved myself feeling the pressure on my bladder and some of the tension of the past 24 hours left my body.

Tails condition had not improved during the night, and I knew that I would be spending the day in the exhibit tending to her. I left a note on my desk outlining everything that had to be done in the areas that were my responsibility so that the relief Keepers would know what their assignments would be that day. I poured a cup of coffee, added the right amount of cream and sugar to it, and returned to the hoof stock exhibit. I thanked the security guard and settled down on my hay bale near Tails.

The hoof stock exhibit area was a large circle covering one acre of the 5-acre zoo. It was divided into slices like a giant pie. This pie had 8 slices which, running from the west towards the east, were dissected by a driveway.  In the center of this pie was the Hoof Stock Barn, a large open-sided steel girded covering. Underneath the large multi-faceted roof were stored bales of Alfalfa and Coastal Hay. There were also containers of alfalfa pellets, horse and mule feed, and Vitamix. Miscellaneous tools hung on the wall and a special rack held rubber boots and gloves. Next to this rack was a cabinet that held a first aid kit and different emergency medications for the animals. There was also an old wall phone which acted as an intercom and public address.

During hot summer days the shade that the hoof stock barn supplied was, at times, the only relief from the desert heat. When the weather was too extreme the gates to the chain link holding pens were opened so that the animals could gain shelter. Slices 4 and 5 were the Bison exhibits. They held the center spot and ever since the Rhinoceroses, who had occupied the now empty 1 and 2 slices of the pie, had been shipped back to the San Diego Zoo 7 months previous, they were my largest and most impressive animals in the hoof stock exhibit.

“Hello!” I looked back over my shoulder to see one of my Explorer Scouts standing at the gate to the exhibit. I motioned for her to enter. I was an Explorer Scout Advisor and I had forgotten that Spring Break was starting for the El Paso School District and that the Scouts would be on the Zoo grounds daily for the next week. “What’s going on?” she asked. I gave her the details of all that had transpired over the previous 24 hours. I then instructed her to stand up by the holding pens and watch Tails while I fed the other animals in the hoof stock exhibit and cleaned their enclosures.

I fed the White Tail Deer, Buck, Doe, and Fawn. I lured Boss Man, the Buck, into his holding pen and quickly got the exhibit cleaned. I then moved to the Ostrich Exhibit, which was pie slice number eight. I lured Mr. and Mrs. Stupid (their official zoo names), into their holding pen. I had no love for these two animals. In October of 1983, the male had broken out of the holding pen and attacked me. I barely escaped with my life. From that time on we had mutual hate for each other. After I released the Ostriches back into their exhibit, I moved over to the 7th slice of the pie.

Helen, our 28-year-old Dromedary Camel was the grand old lady of the Zoo. A year older than me she was arthritic, had a subcutaneous ulcer on her chest callous, had poor eyesight, bad breath, and a cantankerous demeanor and I loved her. As much as a Camel can love I believe she loved me too. I was the only Keeper that Helen would not grunt or spit at. Maybe it was the apple that I brought her every day or maybe it was the care I took in treating the ulcer or maybe a combination of both. Whatever the reason Helen and I had mutual trust in each other.

Next was the Nilgai Antelope in the exhibit next to where Tails was recovering. Junior, the male had two females both of whom were pregnant. The Zoo staff were excited to see the new calves when they were born in the Fall. Nilgai are, for the most part, tame. Males become aggressive during mating season but are otherwise calm and gentle. Junior followed me around the exhibit while I cleaned. I knew Junior was looking for the apple I usually had for him but today there was no apple. I exited the exhibit and filled a bucket with Horse and Mule feed. I poured the sweet feed into their trough and returned to Tails side.

I spent the entire day in the exhibit with Tails being relieved by Explorer Scouts or Keepers to take breaks. Several times during the day I had to pull on the rope to bring her head toward me to keep her from falling over. Around three o’clock in the afternoon, Doctor Hutchinson came to the enclosure to check on Tails. I held my breath as he checked her heartbeat. “Her heart is beating strong” he announced. I heaved a sigh of relief. “She is still weak but is alert,” I told him. The Doctor nodded his head. “I’m going to take a blood sample and check for toxins.” Doctor Hutchinson took the sample and left the enclosure.

An hour later the Doctor returned to the enclosure with Mr. Fulton. “I cannot see any toxins in her blood, I cannot figure out why she is still down. I am going to give her a vitamin shot and see if that helps.” Doctor Hutchinson produced a large syringe and injected the dark brown liquid into her haunch. Mr. Fulton asked me what I wanted to do. “I’m going to stay. She is still not right and I do not feel right leaving her alone.” Mr. Fulton said, “OK but you need to take a break. I will stay with her; you go and get yourself some dinner. Go to a restaurant, sit down, relax, and enjoy a meal.” It was an order I was more than happy to obey.

I walked down the street to Chico’s Tacos. For me and thousands of others, Chico’s Taco’s was heaven on earth. I ordered a double order of Chico’s Tacos, A tray of crinkle fries, and a large milk. After filling my belly with the glorious feast I headed back to the Zoo. Before returning to the exhibit I used the restroom and then went to the staff meeting room. The far wall contained the zoo’s library. I picked out a handful of National Geographic magazines and returned to the Hoof Stock exhibit.

Mr. Fulton informed me that Joe was not working that night and that he had instructed the security guard on duty to do what he had instructed Joe to do the night before. He bid me good night and I settled in for my vigil. As the sunset over the El Paso Zoological Park, I sat on a cot next to a North American Bison Cow reading a National Geographic Magazine.

On the morning of Saturday, April 21, 1984, I was awakened by the sound of a snort and the smell of Bison manure. I opened my eyes and there stood Tails in the middle of her hay bale cocoon. She had just defecated and the steamy pile of manure was just a foot away from the cot I was lying on. I jumped up a walked around to her head. “Way to go Tails, way to go.” She snorted and then dropped to her knees and back to the position she had been in for the past 48 hours. The difference was when she went down she did not wobble or act like she would fall over.

As soon as a Keeper came to relieve me, I left the exhibit and went to my office to phone the Director. After telling Mr. Fulton of Tails progress, he told me he would contact Doctor Hutchinson and let him know. I returned to the Hoof Stock exhibit and went about my duties. After the Hoof Stock was taken care of I had an Explorer Scout watch Tails as I went to check my North American Biome Exhibit. I had not been in the building for two days and I needed to inspect it to make sure it had been tended to properly while I had been with Tails.

The North American Biome Building was a comparative exhibit showing the habitat of the Chihuahuan Desert on one side and the Habitat of a Central American Rain Forest on the other side. The exhibits create a natural light cycle using a bank of eight fluorescent light fixtures taking both exhibits through diurnal, crepuscular, and nocturnal cycles and the animals that are active in each of those cycles. The North American Biome Building was my baby.

One of the reasons I had been hired at El Paso Zoo was because of my experience with exhibit design and small mammals, which were what was on display in the comparative exhibits. The North American Biome Building was a million-dollar exhibit that was one year old when I was hired and was failing. I had found the building in a deplorable condition being kept by a Keeper with no experience with this type of exhibit. Six months of hard work in redesigning the exhibits, syncing the light cycles, and reformulating the animal diets had paid off. The North American Biome Building was now the jewel in the crown of El Paso Zoological Park.

After inspecting the North American Biome Building and seeing that everything was in order I returned to the Hoof Stock Exhibit. As I entered the Hoof Stock Barn I discovered the Head of the Zoo’s Docent Program, Gayle Dove, was there with a McDonald’s bag in her hand. “Here”, she said handing me the bag, “I brought you breakfast.” I took the bag from her. “Thanks, Gay. Did you remember coffee?” She pointed over towards a hay bale and there sat a cup of hot coffee with a warning on the side that was totally unnecessary. Only an idiot would not know that a cup of coffee was hot.

As I ate my McBreakfast I caught Gay up on the happenings of the past few days. “How is she doing now?” I looked towards the exhibit, “Better, Thank God!” Gay and I were good friends. Her husband Joe and daughter Debbie had taken me in to heal when I had been attacked by the Ostrich. The Dove family was rated as some of my favorite people in the world and moments I spent in their company were cherished moments indeed.

I spent the rest of the day in the exhibit with Tails. She rose up a couple of times, stood for a couple of minutes then went back down. She was getting stronger and the sense of relief that I was feeling was overwhelming. Late in the afternoon, Mr. Fulton, Doctor Hutchinson, and Vet Tech Claudia Newman came into the exhibit. I gave my report and they all smiled. “That is good news.” Said Claudia. “I agree” said the Doctor but let’s take a listen to her heart.” As Doctor Hutchinson knelt and placed his stethoscope against her ribs she moved and snorted in protest. Heads, in the other exhibit, snorted and rammed his massive head into the chain link fence. The sound made us all jump. “I don’t think he likes us messing with his cow,” I said. Mr. Fulton laughed, “Indeed.”

Doctor Hutchinson said her heart sounded strong and he could tell there was definite improvement. Mr. Fulton asked me what I wanted to do. “Well, the first thing I want to do is take those ropes off of her horns. I do not think they are needed any longer.” The Director agreed with me and the Vet Tech assisted me in removing the ropes. Mr. Fulton looked at Tails and said, “I think you can go home tonight, take a shower, and get a good night’s sleep. Tomorrow is Easter and you will need your rest.”

Easter Sunday is the biggest and busiest day in Zoo’s all across America. The entire Zoo Staff would be on hand on Easter to help control the crowds and tend to the animals. It was the hardest work for any staff member during the year. Mr. Fulton was correct; I needed my rest but I was still worried about Tails. “I don’t know…” Mr. Fulton put his hand on my shoulder, “Go put up your cot and come back here.”

After putting the cot back in the storeroom, I returned to the Hoof Stock Barn. Mr. Fulton was with Joe the Security Guard. “How far away from the zoo do you live?” the Director asked me. “I am about 15 minutes away.” Mr. Fulton looked at Joe. “You heard him, 15 minutes. I want you to check on the Bison every thirty minutes. If she is lying on her side, you will call Jim immediately. You have his phone number Joe, every thirty minutes are we clear on that?” Joe said he understood. “Joe, she could die if she is on her side too long,” I explained, “it is imperative that you check her. I can get here quickly.” I knew that emphasizing the importance of the check was redundant but I did not trust Joe.

Joe left the Hoof Stock barn promising that he would perform the checks. “Do you think he will check in on her?” I asked Mr. Fulton. “I believe he will. I think he is aware of the importance of this.” I sighed, “I hope you are right.” I went down to check on Tails one last time before I left. “I won’t be with you tonight girl but I will see you in the morning. Get some rest, big day tomorrow.” I patted her hump and she snorted in response. I retrieved my motorcycle from staff parking and headed off to my apartment.

When I arrived home, I immediately took a shower. The hot water coursing over my naked, sore, and tired body felt so good that I just stood under the shower head for a few minutes letting the therapeutic spray of the water wash away the dirt, sweat, and tension of the last 3 days. I dried off, put on my robe, and fixed myself a bowl of cream of tomato soup and a grilled cheese sandwich. I sat at my kitchen table staring out the window watching the gold and red sunset sink behind the mountains to the west. Dropping my plate, bowl, and spoon in the sink I went to my bedroom and fell into the welcoming embrace of my bed.

Easter Sunday, April 22, 1984, arrived full of sunlight and blue skies. The sunlight crept into the bedroom trying to wake me up but I had beat it to the punch, I had been up since 3:00 a.m. when a fast-moving thunderstorm had swept across El Paso. Thunderstorms in the Chihuahuan are not unusual in the Spring and usually sweep through swiftly dumping rain that is quickly soaked up by the high desert. The smell of the desert after rainfall is one of the freshest smells in the world and as I rode my motorcycle down the interstate towards the zoo I inhaled deeply the fresh air.

I arrived at the zoo a few minutes before 6:00 a.m., I was in a joyous mood. Joe had not called me during the night, meaning there had been no issues with Tails. She was going to be OK and I could probably remove the hay bales from around her before the Easter Sunday crowds converged on the zoo. After parking my motorcycle, I headed for the Hoof Stock Exhibit.

I stood at the top of the enclosure, looking down towards the retaining wall and gutter at its base. My mind was not wrapping around what my eyes were seeing; I could not comprehend it. My heart was trying to explode out of my chest and my head was expanding with each rush of blood to my temples. The scene before me was more horrific than any fiction writer could ever describe or a horror movie could ever capture on film through special effects.

Sometime during the thunderstorm Tails tried to stand up. The downpour had turned the caleche into gray mud and Tails, in her weakened state, had slipped on the mud, fell, and slid down to the gutter; her path was visible in the mud. She had hit the retaining wall and tried to regain her legs, which she was too weak to do on the slippery surface. She had struggled, probably calling out in distress and pain. She fought hard for her life as evidenced by the blood, fur, and flesh that covered the retaining wall. She finally grew tired and laid down.

Her massive body blocked the gutter and kept the rainwater from getting to the sump pump well which would have removed the water from the exhibit. As the water rose, she again struggled to gain her feet and escape the rising water but to no avail. Her head was heavy with fatigue from her struggle and she dropped her nose towards the gutter. The great Bison who had fought so hard to survive drowned in the mud and water that she could not escape from.

Joe was walking towards the parking lot when I caught up to him, “JOE! STOP!” My anger was near the point of blind rage. He turned and looked at me “What do you want? I’m off duty and it is time for me to go home.” I clenched and unclenched my fists. “DID YOU CHECK ON TAILS?” I yelled. “Clam down man, of course I did.” I could feel my blood starting to boil. “ALL NIGHT LONG?” He nodded his head. “Yes, except during the thunderstorm, I didn’t want to get wet.”

I exploded, let out a primal scream, and charged the waste of humanity. Throwing my hands around his throat I drove him to the ground slamming his head against the wet earth. Stradling his torso and clutching his throat I slammed his head over and over again into the ground. “YOU KILLED HER YOU MOTHER FUCKER! YOU KILLED HER YOU WORTHLESS SON OF A BITCH! YOU KILLED HER, YOU KILLED HER, YOU KILLED HER…” I yelled over and over again as I tried to take his life as he had taken Tails life.

I was suddenly hit from the side and shoved off Joe. I looked up into the face of the Zoo Director. “WHATS GOING ON HERE!” Mr. Fulton demanded. I looked around through tear-soaked eyes. The relief security guard was kneeling by Joe who was rubbing his throat.  A group of Keepers stood nearby looking concerned and confused. My tears and anguish flooded out and all I could do was point towards the Hoof Stock Exhibit. “She’s dead and he killed her” I croaked out as I pointed back to Joe. Mr. Fulton told a couple of Keepers to stay with me and make sure I did not attack Joe again and he ordered the Zoo Foreman and a couple of other Keepers to go with him to the Hoof Stock Exhibit.

Mr. Fulton returned a few minutes later looking ashen and sick. “CALL 911”, yelled Joe, “I WANT HIM ARRESTED FOR ASSAULT!” Mr. Fulton ignored Joe and walked over to me where I sat on the ground crying. He knelt down next to me and placing his hand on my shoulder said, “I am so sorry Jim.” Joe yelled out, “DID YOU HEAR ME? I WANT HIM ARRESTED RIGHT NOW!” Joe started to stand up, “Never mind, I’ll call the cops myself.” The Zoo Director stood up and turned towards Joe. In a voice tight with rage he said. “Sit down Joe.” Joe kept rising and MR. Fulton yelled, “I SAID SIT DOWN!” The reaction was immediate and Joe collapsed back down to a sitting position.

Mr. Fulton was not a big man but he was an imposing figure. He carried himself with the air of an FBI agent which he had once been. The Zoo Director squatted in front of Joe where he could look at him eye to eye. “You will not call 911 and you will not file charges against Jim…” Joe tried to interrupt the Director who shouted, “SHUT UP JOE!” Mr. Fulton continued. “You will not file charges against Jim. You no longer will work at this zoo. You will write out your resignation from your position dated today. I will not terminate you as you do not deserve any sort of compensation for your neglect of duty which caused the death of that animal.”

Mr. Fulton stood up looking down at Joe he pointed toward me. “If you do not tender your resignation and if you ever try to file charges on Jim or take any other action against him, I will see to it that you are arrested.” Joe jumped up, “FOR WHAT?” The Director fixed him with a cold stare. “Endangerment, Animal Abuse, Destruction of City Property, Dereliction of Duty Resulting In Damage, and whatever other charges I can find on the books to bring against you. I will also have the city attorney file suit against you to recover damages which will be about $500,000.” Joe’s eyes grew wide, “I can’t afford that!” Mr. Fulton grinned, “Exactly!”

Joe said, “But I have witnesses…” Upon saying that every member of the staff that was standing by, including the relief security guard turned and walked away. The Zoo Director looked at Joe and said, “I see no witnesses.” Joe agreed to Mr. Fulton’s terms and retrieving a piece of paper from the guard shack filled out his resignation. “This isn’t right,” Joe said as he handed the resignation to the Director. “What isn’t right Joe is that you let a beautiful animal die because you wanted to stay dry. Now get off the Zoo grounds and never return her again, not even as a visitor. If I ever see you in this zoo again, I will have you arrested for trespassing.” Mr. Fulton looked past Joe, “You heard that?” Standing behind Joe was the zoo foreman. “I did.” Said David. “Please escort Joe from the zoo grounds.

Mr. Fulton offered me his hand, “Let me help you up.” I took his hand and stood up. Wiping the tears from my eyes I asked, “Now what? Do I have to turn in my resignation?” The Director removed a handkerchief from his pocket and handed it to me. “For what?” he asked. “For caring? I do not think so.” I wiped my eyes with the handkerchief as Mr. Fulton sighed. “We will have to close the zoo until we can get her body removed. We have to try and get a crane in here on a Sunday, contact the press to way lay any rumors, and answer a ton of questions.” He turned to me, “I want you to go home.” I shook my head no, “She was my charge and it is my responsibility to help get her out and to her rest.”

Mr. Fulton contacted Doctor Hutchinson and informed him what had happened. He then contacted the City Councilman, Orlando Fonseca, who was the overseer and advocate for the zoo. He explained what had happened to the Bison and asked him to contact the police department and close down the park until Tails was removed. When Mr. Fulton mentioned trying to find a crane Councilman Fonseca said he would contact the street department head and have him send on over ASAP. Mr. Fulton then contacted the El Paso Sun-Times and the 3 Television stations in El Paso. He explained to them what was happening and requested that they stay away from the zoo until Tails was removed. He assured them that he would give them the story as soon as the park was reopened. All the media had a good relationship with Robert Fulton and all agreed to abide by his wishes.

While Mr. Fulton coordinated the removal of Tails body from the enclosure, I was down by her body with a group of Keepers digging her body out of the wet yet rapidly drying mud. I steeled myself as we went to work to make way for the straps that would lift her body from the exhibit. I could not break down, I needed to be strong, direct the work, and get the job done.

I heard the mobile crane and truck that would take the Bison’s body away rumble through the back service gate of the zoo. I left the enclosure and guided the crane to the front of the exhibit. Once the stabilizers were set the crane operator slowly lowered the cable and straps into the exhibit. Working in unison, the zoo foreman and a couple of keepers helped me pull the straps around Tails. Hooking the straps onto the hook at the end of the cable the crane lifted the Bison from the mud with a sickly sucking sound.

Tails was placed on the flatbed truck and after the hook and cable were removed, we covered her body with a tarp, strapped her down and the driver took her away to Animal Control where Doctor Hutchinson would do the necropsy away from prying eyes.

The zoo opened two hours late. As the Easter Sunday crowds enjoyed the zoo with their friends and families, they were unaware of the tragedy that had happened that morning. The Hoof Stock exhibits were placed off limits that day, barricades blocking the area and Explorer Scouts directing the curious public away. I could hear the crowds of people as I cleaned the remains of Tails from the wall. As the children played and laughed, I cried and worked.

In Memory of Tails, The American Bison.



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The Artist Life: Heads And Tails
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The Artist Life: Heads And Tails
The story of a North American Bison at the El Paso Zoological Park in El Paso, Texas.
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Artist Alley Studio and Gallery
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