Acquired: Worked with animal (didn’t own)
Posted Nov 15, 2014
Bison are pretty unique animals with big personalities. I had the opportunity to work with a large herd in a zoo setting for a few years. While I do not disagree with people keeping herds of bison at all - in fact there is a large push in the U.S. to re-establish bison on the American Prairie which I think is fantastic - I do disagree with keeping "a" bison as a pet.
We had a rescue bison come into our facility who's owner thought it would be fun to have a bison for a pet. She had the best of intentions and kept it housed with her horses. She saddle trained it and halter trained it when it was very young. However, unlike horses or cows, bison are still very wild. They can become very aggressive when scared. When you're thinking of small bison calf, that might be okay. But a full grown bison bull can weigh as much as 2000 lbs (females usually around 1200 lbs). You don't want to be close to those animals when they're scared or angry! In the case of our "pet" bison. She eventually became more than the owner could handle. She would chase the horses and she eventually turned on the owner, aggressively knocking her down several times by the time she reached adolescence.
With that being said, keeping a herd of bison is a different story if maintained properly. As another mentioned, if kept alone they can become very stressed. Like many species of hoofstock, when faced with something that scares them they run, often blindly. That instinct is even more apparent in a bison that has been separated from the herd. They will run blindly into anything. I've seen them crash into solid wooden fences for no other reason than they were spooked when left alone.
We maintained one herd with two adult males (one vasectomized and one castrated) and 11 or so females. They had a very established hierarchy, led by our matriarch (who was creatively named Mama). It was easy to tell them all apart, they have very distinct looks and personalities. We only worked them from a truck, and only the previous "pet" ever approached the truck on a regular basis (poor thing also thought she was a horse and would throw her head and prance sometimes...). We were always cautious of their position in the exhibit when we serviced, if they approached - we left. They would challenge the truck if we got too close, especially the high ranking females and the bulls.
Ours were contained with chain-link fence and we never had an issue with them knocking it down, although they were certainly capable of it. Our prairie enclosure was 11 acres in a field surrounded by woods so we believe that the trees acted as a visual barrier and kept them from taking down the fences. We even had a few trees go down over the years and no one left. We did see evidence where they used the fallen tree as a scratching post!
Overall, they would make a good herd species if you have the space to maintain a group of them. At the zoo, we obviously didn't participate in any of the commercial benefits of maintaining bison but I know they are plentiful.