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Where the buffalo roam: Hart Park

A full 15 of the huge, hairy beasts - bison, actually, not buffalos - find a home at Hart Park

Posted: May 11, 2009 10:47 p.m.
Updated: May 12, 2009 4:55 a.m.
A herd of bison wanders around the 25 acres of open land and canyons at Hart Park in Newhall. A herd of bison wanders around the 25 acres of open land and canyons at Hart Park in Newhall.
A herd of bison wanders around the 25 acres of open land and canyons at Hart Park in Newhall.

Debbie Pepe remembers riding her bike as a kid to William S. Hart Park to see the bison.

Now, years later, Pepe gets to feed, entertain and take care of the massive, hairy beasts as they graze 25 acres of open land and canyons at William S. Hart Park.

Hart Park, which covers 265 acres in Newhall, is home to 15 bison ranging in age from one year to 20 years old, said Joyce Fitzpatrick, a spokeswoman for the Los Angeles County Department of Parks and Recreation.

And yes, they are bison, as opposed to buffalo. According to the Bison Support Group North, America, "buffalo" is the popular name often used to describe North American bison. Although both bison and buffalo belong to the same family, true buffalo are native only to Africa and Asia.

But if people don't know the true name of the beasts, it's probably not surprising that their presence in the Santa Clarita Valley also is little-known .

"It amazes me how many people don't know we have bison here," said Pepe, the park's on-site animal health technician.

Walt Disney donated the first bison herd to the county park in 1962. Clyde was the original bull of the herd. He was quite the ornery animal, said Regional Park Superintendent II Norman Phillips.

"He destroyed seven county vehicles," Phillips said. "He was a character."

After Clyde died, the park mounted his preserved and stuffed head at the William S. Hart Ranch House, where it remains watchful.

"He will always be remembered," Phillips said.

The bison, which have a life expectancy of about 25 years, lounge and eat all day. They mostly eat hay, fresh water and supplements. Their maintenance is funded by the county.

"They're meant to be a grazing animal," Pepe, of Newhall, said. "When it's windy, they go up in the canyon and during the summer, they go in the sun or under the trees."

But they can get bored. To remedy that boredom, Pepe said, sometimes park personnel provide the wooly creatures with something to kick around. Or they give them a different variety of food.

Sometimes, the bison give Pepe a surprise of their own. On Thursday morning, Pepe discovered the animals had somehow displaced their watering tub, which she had cleaned just hours earlier.

"They came with their own games to play today," Pepe said.

Pepe anticipated she would spend much of her afternoon hunting down the tub, which the bison has mysteriously knocked away from its location.

"The animals have 24 hours in their pens to do things," Pepe said. "It's a lot of work all the time."

But as someone who used to visit the park and bison as a child, Pepe said she's found the perfect place for her.

"It's a privilege to work at a park I admire so much," said Pepe, who is one of only two Los Angeles County park animal keepers.

Weighing in between 1,000 to 2,000 pounds, the bison don't have too many predators to worry about at their Hart Park home. But park visitors can still find them being very watchful as they follow their survival instincts.

The park's bison area can be accessed through the park or through a path near the Santa Clarita Valley Senior Center on Market Street.

The park is also home to many other animals, including horses, chickens, ducks, pheasants and more. The animals will soon be able to enjoy a new barnyard recently built. The park hopes to host an opening of the pen for the public in the next month after animal containment areas are complete.

The park is also bringing cows back, which haven't been at the park for about four or five years. Potbellied pigs will make their debut appearance in the new pens.

The park, also home to the William S. Hart Mansion and museum, is located at the intersection of Newhall Avenue and Main Street, and is open from 7 a.m. to 5 p.m. For more information call (661) 259-0855.


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