Police gun down 5 buffaloes in Westside front yard
Opinions differ on whether public was in danger; city manager investigating
Repeated shots by three Colorado Springs police officers with semi-automatic weapons slowly took the lives of five buffaloes in
a front yard in the 1500 block of West Colorado Avenue May 9.
An estimated 120 rounds were fired in the span of about 45 minutes - leaving bullet holes in buildings and a parked car. The incident is under investigation by the city manager's office.
Various Westsiders who saw the incident either agreed with police that they were protecting the neighborhood from dangerous animals or claimed that the animals were no threat and that the gunfire may have been a greater danger.
A Division of Wildlife (DOW) official was on hand, but declined to use a tranquilizer on the buffalo because it lacks jurisdiction over animals that are not classified as wildlife, according to DOW spokesman Michael Seraphin. Further, he said, even if the agency could have used its tranquilizers, there were concerns as to how well they'd work or whether they might even worsen the situation, because such darts aren't instantly effective (about 15 to 20 minutes is needed) and could cause a shot animal to start running.
The police themselves took no pleasure in the carnage, noted Sgt. Larry Laxson, who supervised the operation. “This was one of the worst days of my career, with a sad ending,” he said. “But if we ever have to make a decision between animals and humans, we'll choose humans every time.”
The buffaloes, all females, had gotten loose while being unloaded from a semi at G&C Packing Company, 240 S. 21st St. According to G&C owner Frank Grindinger, the trucking company left an opening during the loading process that allowed 5 of the 57 animals being herded off the truck to get away.
A slaughterhouse has been at that Westside location for more than 100 years, with Grindinger owning it for the past 30 and handling hundreds of thousands of animals in that time, he said.
The five escapees ambled east along the Midland Trail, followed by G&C employees. “We turned them from there, and they went into the neighborhood,” Grindinger said. They wound up in the large yard in front of the houses at 1513 and 1517 W. Colorado Ave. The yard is enclosed on the east, south and west sides by buildings and on the north side by a low fence paralleling the sidewalk along Colorado Avenue.
At that point, a short time before noon, a peaceful roundup seemed possible. The animals started grazing, back by 1513 and 1517. Police closed off Colorado Avenue between 15th and 16th streets, formed a line along the sidewalk and a walkway just east of 1519 W. Colorado, and took steps to evacuate nearby houses. Meanwhile, Grindinger developed a plan to herd the normally complacent beasts through a gate between the houses and into the alley, where he would have trailers waiting.
Unfortunately, the trailers were not there yet. About 15 minutes later, according to police, one of the buffaloes began to move. Laxson said it “started walking towards us, separating from the others, then breaking into a trot.” The police concern at this point was that if any of the buffaloes got loose, they could harm people in the neighborhood, he explained.
In addition, a crowd of onlookers had started to develop around the area, attracted by the closed-off street, police cars and strange situation.
When the approaching buffalo got within 30 feet of one of officers, he opened fire with his AR-15 semi-automatic, Laxson said.
Witnesses questioned how much of a threat that first buffalo posed. “They (the buffaloes) never charged until the police started shooting,” nearby resident Rebecca Gibson said.
Added Donna Williamson, a local businesswoman, “The bison were grazing and the cops got the guns out. It sounded like machine guns.”
“They (the police) got antsy,” said nearby resident Karl Remisch.
The animal did not die quickly. “Everyone on the scene was absolutely shocked about how many rounds it took to kill this buffalo,” Laxson said. “I saw five shots to the buffalo's head, and she just flinched them off. It's the most amazing thing I've seen.”
He estimated it took 15 or 16 shots to finally kill the creature. The bullets from the AR-15 are about the size of those from a .22-caliber rifle. The animal died around 12:10 p.m., according to the report.
Although other police were on the scene, only three officers were shooting, because they were the only ones with the AR-15s, Laxson said. Shotguns were ruled out for the sidewalk officers because there might not have been time to reload in a charge, he noted.
Grindinger said he was still trying to maintain calm. It is the way of buffaloes to “respect the distance” between humans and themselves, he explained. “We had them contained in the yard simply by standing there,” he said. “I personally made that point with police.”
At about 12:25, the trailers arrived. Grindinger went back to the alley to supervise, intending to create a temporary corral and herd the remaining four out of the yard. He regrets that decision now. While he was back there, “literally moments away” from commencing the process, police decided that two of the buffalo were charging and opened fire again.
Grindinger believes this was a “misinterpretation of their behavior,” but said he understands that police were concerned about protecting the neighborhood.
From the police standpoint, this was the scariest part of the incident. “Everyone was caught off guard that both of them charged,” Laxson said. because “we had to kill two at the same time. This was where the majority of the shots were fired.”
Unlike the first buffalo's “trot,” the second and third “were at a full gallop, with their heads down,” Laxson recalled. One of them hit the fence along the sidewalk before the gunfire turned it around, he said.
Shortly after that, the fourth one charged and met a similar fate. With only one remaining, Laxson said police decided to finish off the fifth buffalo before it, too, charged.
At 12:51, dispatch was notified that all the buffaloes were down, he said.
Much of the rest of the day was spent hauling off the 900-pound carcasses and cleaning up the yard. Not all the blood was eliminated. Spatters of it could still be seen the next day along the walkway beside 1519.
Nearby resident Scott McCormick defended the overall police actions, “Somebody would have been killed if they hadn't done what they did,” he said. “They saved some people's lives.”
Michael Ericson and Remisch, both of whom live at 1519, said they are angry about the incident. Police did not make them evacuate, and they claim that one of the stray bullets hit their house. A hole in the outside wall can be seen below the second- story window. Laxson said he couldn't be sure at this time, but “I would be extremely surprised if the hole was from one of our shots. These are trained officers. And we were shooting down, not up.”
“I feel like I was endangered,” Ericson said.
Remisch and Ericson additionally question the police statement that 120 rounds were fired. Remisch thinks there could have been more than 300.
Another point raised by witnesses was the type of weaponry. “They should have had a hunting gun,” commented nearby businesswoman Patty Barnes.
Don Talbert, another nearby businessman who described himself as a hunter, wasn't so sure. A high-powered rifle might have sent a shell through the animal, hit something else and resulted in more blood, he suggested. Of the police actions in general, he said, “They were in a bad situation and they did what they had to do.”
Grindinger said his insurance will cover the damages to the private property.
In the wake of the incident, he said he was “very distressed” by what happened. “It's really unfortunate it ended the way it did.” He added that he welcomes the city manager's investigation and will cooperate as needed.
Similar livestock escapes have occurred, but with less destruction. Somewhat similar was the incident in December 2003, when 3 out of 46 that got away had to be shot. The other 43 were herded back peacefully from a neighboring property. Grindinger said all such incidents have been a result of “human error” and his operation is in no way rundown or inefficient.
To minimize the chances of future escapes, Grindinger said he has started designing a secondary corral that would be erected whenever a truck is loading or unloading, so that if any animals get away from the dock they will be contained. Laxson, who is preparing a report for the city manager, said this was a “good thing.” He said his report will focus on “what could have been done differently or what we could do better in the future.” One thought he's had so far is that if buffaloes get away again, it would be better if more officers were prepared to shoot. Two or three per buffalo would probably be a less dangerous situation, he believes.
Despite his financial loss and the unwanted political spotlight, Grindinger said he is trying to look ahead in planning the security enclosure. “We're being proactive about this,” he said. “We will rise to the occasion. We'll rise above this.”
Westside Pioneer article