Penn's Cave animals

Visitors touring Penns Cave Wildlife Park attract the attention of the Rocky Mountain bull elk, whose antlers are in full velvet for the summer; can ponder if they are seeing a cougar or the Nittany Lion from nearby State College; and gaze in wonder at the size and power of American bison, which are often incorrectly referred to as “buffalo.”

CENTER HALL — Had Lou Reed visited Penn’s Cave and Wildlife Park he may have been inspired to pen the following lyrics: “Hey baby, take a ride on the wild side; hey babe, take a ride on the wild side.”

Indeed, a ride in one of the open-air buses on a journey through the 1,600-acre carefully maintained landscape that combines pastures, forests and rolling hillsides is inspiring to anyone who enjoys getting up close and personal with wildlife. At this summer’s Great American Picnic held at the site many of those attending took advantage of the opportunity to take one of the guided tours that travel on existing logging roads and tractor trails.

Everyone from those who have spent a lifetime in the outdoors enjoying activities ranging from hunting to hiking to those wide-eyed youngsters whose lone point of reference to wildlife are from watching videos are certain to find the tours entertaining and informative. Trained guides present facts about both the animals encountered on the tour in their native habitat – although one may wonder if the wolves are decedents of Count Dracula, as they often hide themselves in the sunlight – and also the geology, biology and geography of central Pennsylvania.

Of particular interest is the whitetail deer herd, which has many that have piebald coats displaying large patches of white hair. Several have almost entirely white coats, but they are piebald – not albino.

Among the species viewed in their natural habitat are those found in Pennsylvania, including whitetail deer, Rocky Mountain elk, black bear and red and gray fox. Equally as interesting are such North American species as mustangs, bighorn sheep, wolves, longhorn cattle and American bison.

Most often incorrectly referred to as “buffalo,” truth is William F. Cody should have been nicknamed “Bison Bill.” Buffalo and bison are often used interchangeably, but they are distinct animals.

True Old World buffalo are the Cape buffalo and water buffalo, which are native to Africa and Asia, and bison are found in North America and Europe. Both bison and buffalo are in the bovidae family, but are not closely related.

Historians believe that early European explorers are to blame for the blending of names, although the details are a bit murky. According to the National Park Service, it is possible it came from the French word “boeuf,” meaning beef, or that bison hides resembled buff coats worn by military men at the time.

Bison have large humps at their shoulders and bigger heads than buffalo and also have beards, as well as thick coats which they shed in the spring and early summer. Another simple way to tell a buffalo from a bison is the shape of the horns.

Cape buffalo horns resemble a handlebar mustache with a thick, helmet-like base and curl down, then back up and water buffalo horns are large, long and curved in a crescent. Bison horns are typically sharp and shorter than the average buffalo’s.

Perhaps most unique is actually driving into a herd of what are commonly known as Texas Longhorn cattle, which trace their origins to the cattle first brought to the New World by Christopher Columbus in 1493 to the Caribbean island of Hispaniola. Between 1493 and 1512, Spanish colonists brought additional cattle in subsequent expeditions and consisted of three different breeds – Barrenda, Retinto and Grande Pieto.

Over the next two centuries the Spanish moved the cattle north, arriving in the area that would become Texas near the end of the 17th century. Escaped cattle escaped or those that were turned loose on the open range remained mostly feral for the next two centuries, and over several generations, descendants of these cattle evolved high feed- and drought-stress tolerance and other characteristics that have gained Longhorns their reputation.

There is one stop on the tour so visitors can walk through a natural butterfly garden where at various times of the year such species as Monarchs, Eastern Tiger Swallowtails and Viceroys can be seen. At opposite ends of the garden are man-made habitats for two large black bears and a cougar that paces behind a glass-fronted enclosure while seemingly sizing up visitors for a meal.

Penn’s Cave Wildlife Tours are open daily April through November and tour times vary. Be assured this is no petting zoo and truly a ride on the wild side.

Visiting information for Penn’s Cave:

What: Penn’s Cave Wildlife Park Where: 222 Penn’s Cave Road, Center Hall When: Tours — Through August 31, daily 11 a.m. to 6 p.m., hourly; September, weekdays Noon, 2 and 4 p.m.; weekends 11 a.m. to 5 p.m., hourly; October, weekdays noon, 2 and 4 p.m.; weekends 11 a.m. to 4 p.m., hourly; November, weekends noon, 2 and 3:45 p.m. Contact: www.pennscave.com ; (814) 364-1664

(Dietz is parliamentarian of the Pennsylvania Outdoor Writers Association)

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