NPS Wildlife Petting Chart

After several ill-considered tourist encounters this summer with North America’s largest animal, the National Park Service is offering instructions on proper bison-petting technique. The takeaway, in short: Don’t.

No head pats, no back scratches, no belly rubs. Unless you have bison insurance, the Park Service’s new cautionary graphic advises, best to stay out of goring distance altogether.

The post went viral last week, riding the coattails of a video showing a Yellowstone tourist petting one of the iconic animals. Matt Turner, a social media specialist for the Park Service, saw the footage and knew how to address it via the park’s online platforms.

“Every third or fourth post is some kind of safety message,” he said. “Sometimes you push that out in a forthright way, and sometimes in a more subtle way, with a sense of humor.”

He designed the diagram in the likeness of others he had seen for more pettable animals, like cats and dogs. To adapt it to the bison all he had to do was forbid absolutely any touching whatsoever on any square inch of the surly 1-ton beasts.

This is apparently a much-needed message. Soon after the bison toucher left his mark on the internet, a group of tourists in Yellowstone ventured within a few feet of one of the animals, which then charged a 9-year-old girl and head-butted her skyward. Soon after that a 17-year-old suffered a punctured thigh in a similar incident in Theodore Roosevelt National Park in North Dakota.

“It’s not a petting zoo,” said Kathy Kupper, a spokesperson for the Park Service. “It’s a national park, and they’re in their natural state. They are wildlife. They’re a 2,000-pound animal with horns, no matter how docile they look.”

It’s not the Park Service’s first go at explaining the dangers of crossing the 25-yard safety line around a bison.

Perhaps Helvetica Man wasn’t relatable enough. The faceless, disaster-prone international symbol for “human,” launched into the air by a bison in Yellowstone fliers, has reigned for three years as the standard admonition against tormenting a creature 10 or 20 times your weight.

Before him it was the Anguished Airborne Illustrated Tourist, more realistic but drawn in a similarly horizontal position, who taught other tourists how their bison interaction was likely to end.

But through the decades of gorings the concept has somehow evaded universal comprehension, as park visitors demonstrate annually. Perhaps, in the social media age, the “Don’t-Pet-Me Bison” will fare better. Perhaps the would-be bison petters will heed the warning.

“This one has really caught on,” Kupper said, noting that the general public is already asking for posters. “It’s sort of taken on a life of its own.”

Contact Cody Cottier at 732-5911 or

Cody Cottier covers town and state government. He grew up with a view of the Olympic Mountains, and after graduating Washington State University he traded it for a view of the Tetons. Odds are the mountains are where you’ll find him when not on deadline.

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