The timing was not intentional. On Tuesday, we published a video we shot in Wyoming’s Yellowstone National Park imploring viewers to stay as far away from wildlife as possible. On Wednesday, a 9-year-old girl was thrown into the air by a bison after her family approached within five feet of the wild animal.
The idea behind our video wasn’t to make people safer. It was to make the animals safer. The park service isn’t currently commenting on Wednesday’s incident as the investigation is ongoing, but the girl was treated for minor injuries and released the same afternoon. She’s fine. The bison who charged her might not be. Animals in Yellowstone who get into conflicts with humans often have to be put down.
While filming in the park, we were chaperoned by a ranger. I asked him what the most important piece of information we could communicate to viewers was. His response was predictable: Stay at least 25 yards away from most wildlife and 100 yards away from wolves and bears. It’s the same advice given to all visitors as they enter the park, and it’s repeated on signage and informational materials throughout the area and online.
It would also seem to be common sense. Bison weigh up to 2,200 pounds. Bears will eat you. Walking right up to a wild animal should produce the kind of instinctual fear response that has allowed our species to survive. But, for some reason, Yellowstone seems to function as an off switch for reasonable behavior. There are so many animals, and it’s so easy to see them, that it just interferes with the usual feelings of wonder and surprise that might otherwise keep you at a safe distance.
All those animals are also what make Yellowstone special. It’s one of the few places on the planet where you can see these large creatures living freely in their natural habitat. That may not always be the case though. By getting so close to the bison, this girl’s parents didn’t just endanger its life; they also, incrementally, threatened the lives of all the animals roaming free in the park, as well as our opportunities to see that wildlife in the future. If human visitors cannot learn to behave, then the park might be forced to put up fences, restrict access, reduce wildlife populations, and generally spoil all the stuff about Yellowstone that makes it so unique.
The point of our video wasn’t to improve the quality of your Instagram feed. It was to reduce the impact all of us have on wildlife. If you love animals, stay away from them.