Buffalo Doctor : In a Catalina Island Ritual, It's Round 'Em Up, Check 'Em Out


A cacophony of clanging metal shattered the calm at Santa Catalina Island's working ranch before the buffalo cow, with a low grunt, gave in to the grip of the aging squeeze chute.

Her chocolate mane was matted with burrs, her eyes afflicted with a touch of infection that a ranch hand tended with a casual toss of "pink eye" powder. In a nearby corral, a dozen waiting bulls ran nervously in tight circles, raising a slow-moving dust cloud into the stillness from the hay-strewn ground.

It is time once again for the thinning of Catalina's buffalo herd, a regular ritual on an island with no predators and only so much brittle grass to go around.

But before this group of 55 wild bulls, cows and young heifers can board a barge for their new home on a Montana ranch, Dr. Matt Wyatt must tag them, poke them with needles to test for disease, and check suspect females for pregnancy, a condition that can add a nice fee onto the price of a cow.

"This one's pregnant," Wyatt said with a slight grimace as he groped inside a 785-pound cow for the give-away suction nodules that attach the fetus to the placenta.

The 38-year-old veterinarian, who splits his time between clinics in Avalon and Anaheim, did not bring gloves when he made the trip to Middle Ranch last week and had to perform the procedure bare-armed.

By federal regulation, Wyatt also had to test for tuberculosis and brucellosis, a bacteria that can ravage a herd because it attacks the reproductive system, causing spontaneous abortion, low fertility and vaginal infections.

Clad in jeans and cowboy boots, Wyatt set up his instant vet station on a rickety card table inside the gates of the corral contraption, designed and built two decades ago by a man named Bob Gatey with pieces of the old Avalon pier.

The animals were already separated into groups when Wyatt arrived, ready to be coerced into the squeeze chute by half a dozen helpers who hoot, throw their arms skyward, and rattle their "bull-sticks"--plastic poles with old soda cans on the end.

"Cha! Cha!" yelled Vern Lopez, 48, dancing on the gang plank above a corral to scare the first buffalo into the weighing chamber.

From there, hollers and foot stomping frightened the animal down a narrow run, and she lurched unwittingly into the chute. Frank Minuto, 24, slammed the metal doors behind her. He and Dave Davis, 42, snapped the front doors shut around her neck, and Minuto pulled down hard to close the arms of the chute firmly around her.

Within seconds, Wyatt clipped a tag through her right ear, drew blood from a vein under her tail for the brucellosis test and pierced a quick TB shot into the fatty pad above her tail. Then came the pregnancy check before Wyatt hosed off his arm and prepared for the next buffalo.

"I don't think I want to eat lunch with you," quipped Harrison (Bud) Baker Jr., 70, a friend of Wyatt and an island old-timer whose mother bought one of Catalina's first cottages from chewing gum magnate William Wrigley Jr. in 1921.

Since 1919, the Wrigley family had owned the island through the Catalina Island Co. But in 1975, the company deeded more than 86% of it to the nonprofit Catalina Conservancy to preserve and restore plants and animals that inhabit the 21-mile-long island.

About a dozen buffalo were first brought to the island by filmmakers for the 1924 silent movie "The Vanishing American." Years later, more were shipped in from their traditional Great Plains home to strengthen the island herd.

The herd now numbers about 250 and should eventually be thinned to 125 to ensure the island's grassy slopes of oak scrub, ironwood, prickly pear and sage do not erode from overgrazing, said Herman Saldana, 56, an island native who manages the buffalo herd for the conservancy's Middle Ranch.

Just last month, Saldana said, the conservancy shipped three young buffalo to a mom and pop store and gas station in Tonopah, Nev.

"They're going to use them for a roadside attraction," he said. "The place runs on two generators. They figure this might get people to stop and buy gas."

The buffalo shipments are usually made about twice a year, Saldana said. At the height of California's drought in the summer of 1990, however, the conservancy shipped as many as 20 buffalo a week to a ranch in Oklahoma. Some are used for breeding; others end up as buffalo burgers.

When the 55 animals gathered and tested by Wyatt last week are shipped off to the Montana ranch in the next 40 days, the buyers will bring in four new bulls to help diversify the island's gene pool, Saldana said.

Over the next 40 days, the Middle Ranch workers will cajole, holler at and chase the buffalo one more time to herd them into a trailer for the trip down the winding island road. They will then board a barge waiting at high tide.

The animals will probably fetch about $1.15 a pound, plus extra for every pregnant cow, said Saldana.

"Just about every one of them drops a calf every year," he said. "That's why we have to keep track of them."

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