published Friday, July 4th, 2014

White buffalo new star at safari park

Johnson City Press
  • photo
    Custer, a white buffalo, is the newest arrival at Morristown, Tenn.'s Briarwood Ranch Safari Park. Owner Ron Nease said he's been trying for years to get one of the rare animals at the 150-acre zoo.
    Photo by Contributed Photo /Chattanooga Times Free Press.

MORRISTOWN, Tenn. — Briarwood Ranch Safari Park owner Ron Nease wasn't buffaloed by the formidable task of finding and securing the most recent addition to his zoo. Instead, he grabbed the bull by the horns.

Custer, a rare white bison, arrived at the Morristown park three weeks ago in a cattle trailer from North Dakota, a welcome sight after years of combing through auction listings and livestock ads.

"I've searched for a white buffalo for sale for years," Nease said Wednesday from Briarwood's offices. "I finally found this one on a ranch that had never sold one before, and thought it would add so much to our attraction."

According to the National Bison Association, white buffalo are rare indeed, occurring in only one in 10 million births.

A few different genetic conditions can give the herd animals white coats: albinism, a similar condition called leucism or sharing genes with domesticated cattle, from a hybrid ancestor referred to as a beefalo.

Nease said Custer definitely isn't an albino, because he doesn't have the signature pink eyes, and he doubts the animal's interesting coloring is the result of crossbreeding in his lineage, leaving leucism, a lack of cells capable of making pigment.

When he arrived, Custer was skittish at first, Nease said, but quickly integrated into the park's herd of four other cows, and now seems ready to take on his role as a star attraction.

"Every one of the animals have different personalities," the owner said. "Some are extremely friendly and like to show off, while others are more of an introvert. We've only had him a short time, but it seems like he's going to be an extrovert."

To some American Indian tribes, a white buffalo can be a sacred symbol, believed to usher in a time of peace and abundance.

Sioux tribe members visited Briarwood last week to see Custer, performing chants and dances to honor the rare animal, Nease said.

In his years of searching, Nease said he's only seen a couple of other white buffalo for sale: a heifer at an exotic auction and a bull quoted at $30,000.

He didn't give the exact dollar amount he paid for Custer, but Nease said it was about half of that quote.

Briarwood, both a drive-through safari park and a walk-through zoo on 150 acres of rolling East Tennessee hills, is licensed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture to keep the 70 species of exotic animals contained within.

Nease said the foundation for the park was set more than a decade ago when he traded an old car for five elks.

"From there, we kept adding more animals -- for about 13 years -- and adding more property," he said. "After a while, we spent so much money that we realized we had to get some of it back, so we decided to have a drive-through, so other people could enjoy it."

The park has been open to the public for nine years now, open from spring to fall with an admission charge, $15 for adults and $10 for children.

Nease expects a significant increase in attendance now that Custer is a part of Briarwood's stable, possibly bringing thousands of visitors to the park annually.

Follow Nathan Baker on Twitter @JCPressBak er. Like him on Facebook: www.facebook.com/jcpressbaker.

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