When my hunting dogs are working, I feed them raw dog food from Wild Idea Buffalo Company. In the summertime, when they are off duty, I buy fifty-pound bags of prepared dog food from a farm supply store that carries at least twenty different brands. In the last couple years, I’ve noticed that more and more of those brands claim to contain buffalo meat. The advertising on the bags, depicting the American buffalo, creates the impression that your dog will be healthier and more wolf-like if you buy him a bag of this “natural” K9 protein.
This buffalo-infused dog food is supposed to be excellent for your dog, but it’s about the same price as any other prepared dog food. I know all too well that the meat from American buffalo (especially like the ones who roam our ranch) costs much more to raise than the sixty cents a pound they are getting for this bagged stuff. Something wasn’t adding up, but I didn’t give it much thought until a friend of mine, who is incidentally a Viet Nam veteran, went out of his way to bring me a clipping from a national newspaper. His face was red, and he stuttered as he laid the clipping on my desk and beat his fist on top of it. “The sons-of-bitches,” he said. I only had to read a couple lines to find out what he was talking about. It was a subject of great interest in the American buffalo industry. The dog food I’ve been seeing (and no doubt other “buffalo” products) does not contain American buffalo and it was dipping into the profits of American buffalo producers in a subversive way.
Some wise marketer has done some very basic genetic research and found out that the buffalo that roam our ranch – the iconic, romantic, wild herbivores who ran in huge herds, shaped the Great Plains, sustained Native Americans, and came to define the American spirit - are scientifically not buffalo. According to modern taxonomists they are Bison bison. Technically, buffalo are buffalo Bubalus– creatures of Africa and Asia, mostly domesticated, and more like cattle than American buffalo.
How did this colossal misnaming happen? The first Europeans to see American buffalo were not taxonomists (in fact, taxonomy was in its very early stages). They were adventurers, seeking gold and silver. The truth is that the Spanish, English, French, and Dutch didn’t even know where they were, let alone the difference between American buffalo (bison) and old-world buffalo. They thought they were in India. That’s why they called Native Americans, Indians. They knew that there were buffalo in India, so the big shaggy herbivores that seemed to be everywhere in North America must be buffalo.
The buffalo meat that is sneaking into American market places are old, domestic water buffalo, purchased and slaughtered by the thousands at very low cost in Asia. “I saw these dirty bastards,” my friend said. Now he was thumping his index finger hard on the newspaper clipping. “Getting led around by little kids. Wading around in stinking, sewage lagoons.” He shook his head in disgust. “I was wading around with them.”
My friend was right, of course. There is no western romance or iconic majesty in a water buffalo. But there are lots of them, lined up at Asian feed bunks, eating who knows what, and drinking that fetid water like beef (and 90 percent of American buffalo) in feedlots. It is a classic case of the old marketing switcheroo and the American buffalo industry is livid, even though the purveyors of Asian buffalo meat are technically and taxonomically right in what they claim. Truth is, the American buffalo industry has been out maneuvered.
We at Wild Idea don’t have much to do with the American buffalo industry. Our goals for the animals on our ranch, is to keep them as close as possible to what the first Europeans found when they came ashore in the fifteenth century: Roaming in large herds on native grass and stimulating all the other creatures of the Great Plains. We are not interested in domestication, selective breeding, feedlots, or industrial slaughter of American buffalo. To hear the righteous indignation of the industrial producers of American buffalo meat, who are treating their American buffalo like cull, Asian, water buffalo and are using the same marketing tricks that are being used against them now, I find ironic.
The corporations who are selling water buffalo meat are stealing the majesty, romance and honest claims of the purity of the American buffalo. They are using subliminal advertising to sell their inferior product at high margins. The vast majority of American buffalo producers are doing the same thing. Their websites and packaging are covered with noble images of American buffalo and the landscape they used to inhabit. Everything is designed to invoke thoughts of freedom of movement, strength, and wildness, when in fact, their animals are crammed into stinking feedlots eating corn that is grown where native grass used to grow. They are carted off to industrial slaughter plants where they are lined up and killed with disregard for the animal’s nobility and iconic power.
Marketing is the deceitful dog of modern materialism. It is faithful until it turns and bites its master. It may be true that many of society’s old conventions do not apply in the helter-skelter of the twenty-first century marketplace, but some of the old sayings do: “Buyer beware“ and “What goes around comes around” are two that come to mind.