Bluebell's infamous water pumpPhoto by: Jean Simpson

 by Susan Eirich, Ph.D. —

Jean flung the door to the office cabin open in great agitation. “We’re out of water! Call the Water Master!” (It was Sunday afternoon – unlikely to be effective). I asked mildly why we needed to call the Water Master. “Because he just put in a big irrigation system and he is stealing our water! How can you be so calm! I can’t wash the animals or water the trees in all this heat! And I can’t take a shower!”
We are on well water, and like old western movies about range wars, there are still ongoing fights about water rights in this high mountain desert. There is little that riles up ranchers more than water rights.

In the morning, without thinking, I turned on the water for a shower – and then remembered there wasn’t supposed to be any. But there was. I also heard Jean washing the wolf area. Interestingly, I heard no more about the crisis.

I casually asked later if the water situation had somehow improved. I got a sheepish “Yeah.” I asked, “How did that happen?” It turns out that Bluebell the buffalo had an itch that she had to scratch – and the pump handle out in her pasture was apparently made to order for buffalo itch relief. It was welded to a pipe solid in the ground Jean had dug 6 feet deep to protect it from freezing in our winter cold. Our wooden fence posts were seemingly too wimpy for a good scratch. So she went to town against the pipe, and in the luxurious, satisfying process had turned on the faucet full blast. Water gushed to the ground and the holding tanks filled from our well had been emptied.

After his initial panic, Jean began to check all the many pumps around the animal compound for leaks, ready to be mad at staff for potentially leaving a pump open. All was in order. Only belatedly did he think of the pump way out in the buffalo pasture.

Bluebell the Buffalo | Photo by Earthfire

How could he be mad? A buffalo needs her scratch. When he told me it was with a very indulgent tone. He loves Bluebell. And he lives from a place where he vividly and empathetically feels animals’ physical needs. You should hear him as he talks about a fox biting into a juicy grape. You can feel the burst of sweet juice in the fox’s (and Jean’s) mouth he speaks.

Jean’s version of the events:

“A couple of years ago we installed a water system for the bear pools before I had realized that a bear garden wasn’t a garden without trees. So I put in a pump just outside the bear gardens in the buffalo/ horse/ burro pasture as a way to fill the ponds when the runoff from the winter snow melt was over. Well, Bluebell saw the use of those faucets to itch those spots that she couldn’t reach by herself. Just the right angle. But in the process of creating relief she also opened the faucet, thus creating a lack of pressure for the hoses to clean in the animal compounds. One day while I was trying to clean our rescued coyotes there was hardly any pressure to clean them or to fill the duck pools. I checked all the faucets. Knowing that staff was coming that morning to help clean I looked around to see if any faucet had been left open and gushing water. Then all of a sudden I remembered that there was a faucet I needed to check that I hadn’t checked before. That was the famous scratching post. Sure enough there it was, gushing water, probably all night.

There are places where she cannot scratch, as everybody knows from experience with our own backs. She could only roll on that agonizing itch, which gives meager relief. The pump handle has just the right shape for her to get underneath and take care of that urge. Satisfying.”

It would have been a bit embarrassing if I had called the Water Master. A community uproar caused by an itchy bison……

A determined Bluebell | Photo by Earthfire

Jean has since wired the handle shut.

The post itself is still available for a pressing need.

There are many Bluebell stories. She is quite a presence on the property, which she considers absolutely hers. A large, brown, dominating, matriarchal, solid, grounded presence who has her own opinions about things.. A Personality.

Dr. Susan Eirich is the Founder and Executive Director of Earthfire Institute Wildlife Sanctuary and Retreat Center. A licensed psychologist, biologist and educator, her goal is to widen the circle of conversation about conservation to include the voices of all living beings.

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