Recent stories of pure stupidity and ignorance coming out of my beloved Yellowstone National Park have me seething. Perhaps you’ve seen these reports on social media or in the news. While what’s happening at Yellowstone is nothing new, nowadays we’re hearing about it way too often.
A bit of backstory: I lived and worked in Yellowstone in the mid-1990s. I was out of college and hadn’t yet found a “real” job so I ventured West to Yellowstone and found work as a server at the Mammoth Hotel Dining Room. I’ve had some extraordinary experiences in my life and I can say, with utmost certainty, that my time in Yellowstone was the best time of my life. A main reason it was such a special time is that I got to LIVE in Yellowstone, one of our nation’s treasures. I worked hard and I worked often but I maximized my time off by exploring as much of the park as possible. Inevitably, I fell in love with Yellowstone and, decades later, it still occupies a very large and very special place in my heart. So when I hear these unfortunate stories about people being idiots in the park, it hurts. It hurts my heart to know that members of the human species could be so disrespectful.
Normally, I’m in full support of anyone and everyone visiting Yellowstone. I believe it’s a magical place that everyone should experience. But there needs to be some talk of what NOT to do in Yellowstone and how to avoid becoming a touron. (Don’t know what a touron is? It’s a term used to describe visitors to places like national parks who are absolutely clueless or just have no regard for nature and conservation. The word itself is a combination of “tourist” and “moron”.)
Do NOT think of Yellowstone as some kind of amusement park where the animals are just on display and put in pens or cages when all the tourons are asleep. Yellowstone is wilderness. The animals that live there are WILD. It is THEIR home; we humans are the visitors. Respect that fact. True story: I waited on a family one night at Mammoth Hotel Dining Room. The restaurant looks out onto a grassy area where it’s common to see bison and elk lazing about. The mom, while viewing some animals, asked me, “So, what do you do with the animals at night?” I looked around for hidden cameras or something, thinking this was some kind of joke. I replied, “I”m sorry?” She repeated, “What do you do with the animals at night? Are they rounded up and put in those pens?” (The “pens” she was referring to are actually barriers constructed to protect humans and animals from steaming holes in the earth caused by Yellowstone’s fascinating geothermal features. But more on that later.) I calmly placed my serving tray under my arm and said, “Ma’am, these are wild animals. This is not a zoo. They roam freely all day, every day.” She was stunned. To this day, I’m pretty sure she didn’t believe me.
Do NOT approach the animals! I mean, I don’t know how many times this can be said. It’s not only for the animal’s safety but also for the human’s safety. And it doesn’t only apply to animals like bears and bison. Elk can be just as ferocious if they need to be. True story: Again, I was working in the restaurant at Mammoth Hot Springs. It was September, midday, and the elk were in the rut (mating season). It’s a very intense time for the elk, especially the males. By this time of year, their racks are fully grown. Basically, they’re carrying a huge collection of sharp spears upon their heads. So, on this particular day, there was a large bull elk wandering about the street in front of the restaurant. A group of tourons had just piled out of a tour bus. A couple of them took notice of the bull elk and began to walk toward him. The bull began bugling; I could see puffs of steam blowing out of his nostrils. The tourons kept approaching, despite the elk being visibly irritated. The male touron got too close for the elk’s comfort, so the bull, with his giant rack, tilted his head downward and began to charge the touron. In true touron fashion, the idiot threw the full cup of Coca Cola he had in his hand in the elk’s face. The coward then turned to run. The elk gave chase for a few steps then backed down, much to my dismay.
Do NOT think nature is rated PG-13. Again, wild animals. Nature. The animals are gonna do what they need to do to prevent their species from becoming extinct. See where I’m going here? True story: Again, waiting on a family at the restaurant during rut season. My discussion with the matriarch went a little something like this:
Mom: “So, what do you all do when the animals start to… you know?”
Me: “When they mate, you mean?”
Mom, uncomfortably: “Yeah.”
Me: “What do you mean, ‘what do we do’?”
Mom: “Well, you just let them do their thing in the open like that?”
Me: “Of course!”
Mom, now becoming incensed: “Well, what if young children see that?!”
Me: “Well, then that’s become the perfect opportunity for you to talk to little Johnny and little Susie about the birds and the bees.”
I’m pretty sure that family didn’t leave me a tip.
Do NOT try to “rescue” animals and put them in your car. It’s getting a bit redundant, yes? Wild animals. Nature. The animals have adapted over the ages to handle the elements. So if you’re doing the windshield tour of Yellowstone and you happen upon a bison calf that “looks cold”, don’t stop to “rescue” it by putting it into your car and driving it to a ranger station. True story: I did not personally experience this incident; it happened recently. The saddest part of the whole story is that wildlife officials attempted to reintroduce the calf to its herd but it was unsuccessful, so the calf had to be euthanized.
Do NOT use the animals as props for selfies or pictures of your children. Hard to believe but this also is a true story. As a new employee in Yellowstone, I attended mandatory orientation sessions. One class was all about park safety, including wildlife encounters. We were told a story of a man who placed his 3-year-old on top of a resting bison so he could get a picture. Understandably, the bison became agitated. The bison stood up which caused the child to fall off. The child was not hurt, thankfully, but the father ended up being gored by the beast. The story was so disturbing to me that, 20 years later, I haven’t forgotten it. I also thought it so disturbing that it HAD to be a solitary incident. Not the case. There have been more similar acts of stupidity with people trying to get pictures of and with bison, especially. Turning your back to a massive animal that’s barely six feet away to take a selfie is a really bad idea. Those employee orientation and safety classes should be mandatory for visitors, too.
Do NOT go in the hot springs. More specifically, obey the signs and do not stray from the established boardwalks. They are there for a reason! Arrest warrants were issued recently for a group of chuckleheads that did not follow the rules and walked into the protected area around Grand Prismatic Spring. As in HOT SPRING. You know what that means? It’s HOT. The liquid in that gorgeous pool is 160 degrees; the spring itself is 160 feet deep. It wouldn’t be pretty if someone were to slip and fall into the pool and be nearly-boiled alive. Furthermore, a natural feature like Grand Prismatic Spring is quite delicate. The vivid colors of the spring are caused by certain bacteria. Human contact with the natural elements disrupts the bacteria mat, thereby possibly altering the color and chemical make-up of the liquid. Currently, Yellowstone officials are still trying to assess how much damage has been caused by these inconsiderate jerks. The greater fear, though, is the potential for copycat crimes. True story: Yes, leaving the boardwalk and disturbing Grand Prismatic Spring is a crime; hence, the arrest warrants.
Yellowstone National Park was established in 1872 “for the benefit and enjoyment of the people.” To ensure that Yellowstone is still around for future generations of “the people”, please follow all laws and rules, respect the land and the animals, and don’t be a touron.