A dark stretch of Yellowstone highway. June 2003. It’s not full dark yet, but twilight has faded considerably. The only light left is a narrow inch-high ribbon over the horizon. I didn’t notice much as we drove along in the dusk, except a car approaching that didn’t turn off its brights.
As we got closer, we realized that the car was stationary, sitting on the side of the road. Smashed almost beyond recognition. We pulled to the side of the road to offer assistance, just like the line of cars that had already stopped. Since traffic was not moving, we got out of the car and found out that the older couple in the car were fine. Miraculously, considering the state of their car.
But what we realized when we all got out of the car was the reason no cars were moving in either direction. It was a full-grown buffalo lying in the middle of the road. Even from where we were, we could see a pool of dark around its massive head. It was, unquestionably, dead.
“Be careful,” someone called. “There’s another one.”
Not another dead, we realized. Quite alive. The unpredictable tempers of buffalo are nothing to trifle with, so we kept our distance. This other buffalo climbed out of the ditch and made its way toward its fallen comrade and it was difficult not to project human reactions onto the animal. What kind of relationships do buffalo form? Were they were parent-child, siblings, mates, friends? Do they feel emotion? The second buffalo approached, then nudged the fallen one. Again. Harder. The fallen buffalo didn’t move. The second buffalo moved a little, then nudged again, this time using one of its horns, rather than the flat of its forehead. Do buffalo feel grief? Undeniably, yes.
One minute ticked by—clacks of hooves on the asphalt, circling—then five—confusion turning to certainty—then ten—do buffalo feel hope? despair?—and then the second buffalo left its fallen friend as it lumbered off into the now-complete darkness.