Greg Latimer of The Lincoln County News is concerned that folks aren’t taking Wanda the Wandering Buffalo’s plight seriously. For starters, there was the tongue-in-cheek column in the Portland Press Herald and a bit on the Channel 8 news. Then a radio station out of Saginaw, Mich., phoned Jefferson’s only store March 22 wondering—between guffaws—if the town’s residents were trapped indoors while Wanda “roams the prairies up there in Maine.”
Truth be told, though, The News was equally to blame. “At first, it was your standard whimsical story,” admits Latimer, an all-business type armed with an impressive telephoto lens. “And that’s how we played it on our Web site. But in the last week or so, it’s turned more serious. That critter is used to being in a herd. She’s probably pretty scared.”
When Latimer updated his story, the tone shifted appropriately:
All is quiet once again at the mountaintop farm in Somerville owned by Forest Peaslee Jr.
The television cameras and the eager daily newspaper reporters have all gone back to Portland with stories highlighting the whimsy of a missing buffalo in the Jefferson highlands.
But out in the woods somewhere, in an unfamiliar forest and without the herd she has depended on her whole life, a 10-month-old female buffalo is now beginning her third week in the wild.
It’s early Saturday morning, and Latimer and I are trying to keep warm in the parking lot next to Jewett’s Auto Service in Jefferson, a town of 2,000 nestled up against camp-heavy Damariscotta Lake just north of Waldoboro. The locals here are accustomed to flatlanders—come summer Jefferson’s population swells to as many as 6,000. But Wanda, picked up by Peaslee and his cousin Gabe in Missouri, is an unexpected guest. The 500-pound heifer was intended for grazing up on nearby Haskell Mountain with more than 100 red deer, elk, and her fellow buffalo—all part of Peaslee’s 4-year-old Rocky Mountain Red Deer Farm—until she bolted. Peaslee hopes to sell his animals for their low-fat, low-cholesterol meat, and Wanda wants no part of it.
Now, an enthusiastic posse of 20 has gathered at Jewett’s for a good old-fashioned roundup. Erlon Cremer is here to help an old friend. A Maine Guide and carpenter who broke his eardrums in a work-related fall last year, Cremer figures buffalo “are different than a regular animal. It’s hard tellin’ how wild they are.” Dannie Peaslee, the erstwhile rancher’s wisecracking younger brother, is also here. He insists “a buffalo is no different at all. Just like with a cow: You control the nose, you control the body.” Linda Baily and Cindi Briggs, who have no experience with this sort of thing, have nevertheless brought their horses, Charlie and Sweet Cheeks. “We figure we’ll just ride around and look dumb,” Baily says, laughing.
Chewing on a toothpick, the elder Peaslee, who goes by Junior and is garbed in a black coat adorned with a tiny red buffalo, a black leather vest and a black cowboy hat, huddles everyone up. Relying on various sightings, he’s convinced Wanda is hiding out in a pasture up the East Pond Road, where last night he set up a makeshift corral. The field is about 100 yards in diameter and bordered on three sides by woods and on the fourth by the road.
“Erlon, you’ll take half the group through the woods here,” he says, tracing his finger over a hand-drawn map, “and Dannie, your group will go through the other side.”
“Classic flanking maneuver,” Latimer whispers to me.
“We’ll flush her out and into the horses,” Junior continues. They in turn will herd the animal into the corral and set up the coup de grâce, to be administered by his nephew James, who, lying in the tall, wet grass, will spring to his feet and swing the gates shut.
“It’ll be just like deer-hunting,” predicts James, who’s dressed in six layers of clothing and a red ski mask. “If I can stay awake, that is.”
“What’d you get last year?” asks Dannie.
“A nine-pointer,” he replies proudly. “Two hundred ten pounds.”
The group shuffles about anxiously. Feet are stomping against the cold, forcing Junior to raise his voice. “All right,” he shouts. “Let’s move out!”
Within minutes, 15 pickup trucks and one Lincoln County sheriff’s cruiser have noisily relocated themselves a mile or so to the East Pond Road, past a homemade sign that reads, “Caution—Buffalo Crossing.” Junior distributes walkie-talkies, and James tests his out along the ditch: “Hey Uncle Junior, can you hear me now? Can you hear me now? Can you hear me now?” In what might be seen as a dry run for later in the morning, Junior struggles to herd the groups into position until finally their trudge through the woods begins. He’ll hang back by the road and coordinate the action from the there.
“Ain’t like a cow or a calf,” he tells me, chewing on his toothpick. “She’s a wild animal. Even ones in a herd are damn skittish.”
“Damn right they are,” Latimer injects, “and dangerous.”
We listen now to the empty crackle of the walkie-talkie.
Logging trucks pass, and Saabs, folks sipping coffee and chatting on cell phones, all slowed down by Deputy Sheriff Ron Rollins’ flashing blue lights.
Forty-five minutes later, Latimer is telling me that he’s originally from Los Angeles—well, Hermosa Beach, actually, where he strung for the Herald Examiner and, for awhile, snapped police evidence photographs. Then he got into the restaurant and hospitality business. “Which gave me the opportunity to travel the—”
Just then an out-of-breath voice cuts through the radio: “We’re onto some fresh tracks. Thing’s headed your way, Junior. Look for her on the south end of the field!”
“Wind’s blowin’ our scent right at her,” Junior replies anxiously.
“Let’s move it on back behind the ridgeline,” Latimer yells to a growing crowd of interested onlookers, his arms up authoritatively. “Let’s go.”
He reports to Junior that the perimeter is clear.
“Saw a herd of moose and some deer here yesterday,” Junior tells the empty field. “I figured today they’d push some out.”
“Are you there, Junior?” barks the radio.
But before he can reply, he sees the tiny smudge of brown against the far tree line. The toothpick dangles from his bottom lip.
“They’re not slow animals,” he instructs us. “They can go up to 35 miles per hour, so if she starts coming this way, just throw your arms up and holler.”
Wanda, however, doesn’t like the looks of things. After measuring up Sweet Cheeks, she turns around and dashes back into the woods, away from Dannie and Erlon.
Junior releases the long, low sigh of failure. “Damned if I know what to do now.”
A few uncertain groans come from the audience as the walkers regroup in the middle of the field.
“Last I seen her, she was headed down toward Moody’s Diner,” Dannie says, and someone else suggests that maybe we all should meet her for breakfast.
It’s left to Latimer to spin things positive. Later that day, the Lincoln County News Web site will splash the banner headline: “Major Effort to Capture Missing Buffalo on Saturday Almost Succeeds.”
Maine Times, April 2002