Ken Childs, once a tool salesman in Central California, now has a home where the buffalo roam. And to him, it approximates paradise. Childs and his wife, Denice, both 37, have a buffalo ranch in Ramona, which produced the American Bison Assn.'s Gold Trophy Champion for 1989. Times staff writer Leslie Wolf interviewed Ken Childs at the Star B Ranch in Ramona, and Kenneth Lam photographed him. People think of San Diego as palm trees and yachts and beaches, yet they should realize that the No. 1 buffalo in the nation came from right here in San Diego.
We started raising buffalo mainly out of a need to keep this ranch in the family. My wife’s father had the ranch for about a year before we came here to manage it for him. He’s a big businessman up in Los Angeles. I had a tool-distributing business, but typical of any business, it just totally drained my time and my family life was suffering. We knew we had to make a change. Then the opportunity came up here, and my wife’s father urged us to come down and see what we could do.
Our first intention was to develop, but it didn’t take us long to see this is a special place. We thought we’d try to create a business here first.
We needed an idea. We looked into horses and cattle, but realistically, 1,000 acres is not enough to raise a lot of cattle, and the horse business is very competitive. We heard about exotic animals, so we looked into it, and here we are nine years later, full on into the buffalo business.
We had a lot of learning to do. We had to build up all the fences around the place, and build a good solid corral. Then we had to create a market for the buffalo meat.
I don’t have much marketing experience, but I really like what I’m selling. Buffalo meat is becoming more and more in demand because buffaloes are very lean animals, so it ultimately results in a meat that is low in fat, cholesterol and calories. It has a lower cholesterol content than chicken. It’s good for heart patients who are starving for a good old burger. We also do not give them any growth stimulants or steroids, so the public really appreciates that. It tastes just like beef, but actually has more flavor to it because it has less fat.
It also gives the restaurants a good gimmick. Everybody can relate to the history of the American bison. . . . Most people don’t know it, but an influx of water buffalo is coming into the country, and the quality of meat doesn’t even compare. So we tell people to make sure they’re getting American bison meat.
We also sell buffalo skulls, trophy heads, bones, and hides to make buffalo robes from. We ship the skulls everywhere, especially to art galleries because of the Southwestern art interest right now. It gets back to the Plains Indian and how they utilized the buffalo as their lifeblood. They worshipped the buffalo. You can decorate buffalo skulls in ways that have a lot of spiritual meaning, but I’m not an Indian and don’t profess to know the spiritual meanings, so I try to stay away from that.
A lot of people ask me if bison isn’t an endangered species, but they are not. They were protected by the government back around 1874, so that hunters wouldn’t wipe out the species. The government put the buffalo in different state parks, and they did very well at preserving the herd. Their numbers got to be so many, they started selling them to the public, which makes it possible for people like us to raise them.
The only wild herd left is in Yellowstone Park. But they have a disease called brucellosis, which is a problem, and the herd is getting so big they are leaving the park. You just can’t have a bunch of buffalo roaming around free into highways and towns. The state of Montana is giving out permits for people to go shoot them, and it’s causing a lot of problems. The buffalo are the ones suffering, unfortunately.
Even the ones on this ranch are wild animals, basically. Some of them will eat out of your hand, but that’s about as friendly as we get. They can be very dangerous, actually, because they know how to use those horns and they can ruin you real quick. I’ve been chased many times, but fortunately I’ve always gotten away.