By Mike Renzella
The Haldimand Press
HAGERSVILLE—Tucked away in a room on the third floor of West Haldimand General Hospital, bison farmer Mike Waters lays in a bed with a brace affixed to his back. While the spasms of pain and difficulties of breathing every few minutes appear agonizing to endure, Waters knows one thing above all else: he is lucky to be alive.
Waters and his wife Michelle have over 30 years of experience raising bison. They started on a rented farm in Brantford before eventually starting their current operation, Springvale Bison Farm, on Concession 14 Walpole in Hagersville, where they currently manage a herd of about 50 animals.
“I started with absolutely nothing,” recalled Waters, who noted that bison farming takes significant investment and time before seeing any returns. “It takes a lot of fencing. Once you’ve got that built, you’ve got to wait about five years for an outcome of bulls…. When it starts to go, it goes good. We sell an average animal for about $5,000 at about 2.5 to 3 years old. They basically feed on grass, hay, and good, clean water.”
While bison are relatively independent, working with large animals has various dangers, ones that Waters has had plenty of firsthand experience with: “I’ve been gored, run over, stabbed, and thrown,” he explained. “It comes with the territory when you raise buffalo.”
But he described his most recent close encounter, which has kept him in the hospital for weeks, as “probably one of the worst ones yet.”
“My wife was getting ready to ship a bull. She brought the crew in, and I guess they were all set up to go. She was in the pen and had caught one big bull in there, he was about 2,500lbs. I got kind of nosy. I don’t go in the pens anymore because I’ve got a cane and my knees are blown out.”
That day, however, Waters went to look. As he approached the pen, he noticed two things: the gate was not fully closed, and that 2,500lb. bull was charging straight toward him.
“That’s about the last things I remember. He hit that gate at about 20 miles an hour. The gate still had four feet to shut, so when it slammed into me, it threw me 15 feet into the air and I went into a hydro pole.”
Waters paused here in his retelling, clearly still shaken by the experience, before adding, “You get that close to death, you get really emotional.”
He was rushed from the farm to Toronto General Hospital, and he next remembers waking up while hospital staff were in the middle of cutting his clothes off.
“I was in excruciating pain. Horrible, horrible pain – something I would never wish on anybody. They ran me right up to trauma care where I learned I had broken my back in two spots, and broken my shoulder in two or three spots, and had crushed the ribcage with such a force that it literally blew the skin off the inside of my ribs; I had a flailed ribcage.”
Waters was kept in a medically induced coma for a week to begin healing. Following that, he spent three weeks in a trauma unit, where he said, “They didn’t want to operate on anything for fear of blood clots. They wanted my shoulder to heal by itself … and for my ribcage they thought about surgery, but in my case, they said they would let it go…. For my back, I’ve got a brace on.”
Waters welled up again when discussing his prospects at a full recovery, explaining, “I’m hoping to walk again. I’m taking small steps here and there…. My family is building a wheelchair ramp.”
Despite the pain, he tries to focus on the brighter side of things: “I’m pretty lucky the gate was there, because I’m sure he would have horned me and taken me with him.”
On the difficulty of working with volatile animals, he explained, “The problem with them is, in an open field they’re quiet and docile and good, but when you confine them the anxiety takes over and they’ll jump 10 feet standing still and they’ll run 30 miles an hour,” adding that at full charge a bison could “run through a concrete wall.”
“I’ve been into it 30 years and I still have none that I can pet. You have to keep your eyes open in the back of your head, because they’ll kill you. They will kill you quick,” he said. “They do not like to be confined. They just go nuts. It’s hard separating them, but it can be done when you have the right facilities. We have the right facilities, but I was at the wrong place at the wrong time.”
He listed some of the warning signs of an impending charge or attack, noting a head shaking back and forth, pawing the ground, and snarling as indicators that something is wrong, but a raised tail means immediate trouble: “If it does, you’re getting it. It’s like a rattlesnake.”
Despite the risks associated with their work, Waters said he loves the animals and remains passionate about working with them.
“I don’t do it for the money, I do it for the love of the animals,” he said. “I have such a love and compassion for the animals, and my wife does too…. Whether we carry on, that’s something I’ll decide once I’m out of here.”
Waters is expecting to remain at West Haldimand General Hospital for at least a couple more weeks before returning home. We wish him the best in his recovery.