When Don ‘Doc’ Woerner gets excited about something, his whole body talks. His arms wave, and his head wags, and he uses his hands a lot. But mostly it’s in his eyes, which are bright blue and already pretty twinkly behind his wire-rimmed glasses.
What Woerner is most excited about lately is a bison museum.
Not one that exists now. But the one he is planning to build.
Woerner, who retired a few years ago from his veterinary practice in Laurel, bought a building just south of ZooMontana. Next to that sits an unused pasture that’s fairly good-sized, owned by the zoo. Woerner’s dream is to convert this building and the property next to it into a place where people can come and learn about an animal for which he has immense admiration.
“You know, the thing about bison is that you can get them to do whatever they want to do,” he jokes. That’s his way of saying that one of the things that distinguishes the bison from other large animals is that they do not adapt to the wishes of those who own them. It has to be the opposite.
Woerner developed an interest in animals at a very young age, although he didn’t grow up around them in any direct way. Woerner was raised in Arvada, Colo., a town just about the size of Laurel, and his father worked as a parts man for the local Chevy garage. But he remembers loving animals of all kinds from the time he was small, although he didn’t imagine himself working with them until later.
When he finished high school, his plan was to become an airplane mechanic. He and his father shared a love of flying, and he would eventually go on to become a licensed pilot and own a couple of small airplanes. But somewhere along the line, animals caught Woerner’s attention once again. When he found out that Colorado State University, just 65 miles from his hometown, had a veterinary school, Woerner decided to apply.
He was accepted, and that’s what sent Woerner on his way to become a country vet. Woerner landed his first veterinary job working for Gus Zancanella, who ran Billings Veterinary Service out by the stockyards. But a few years later, Woerner jumped at the chance to buy some land near Laurel. He soon had his own practice, which he started in 1973.
“I was very pleased to be able to find a place by Laurel, and looking back, I think it was because it’s so close to the same size as Arvada. I always felt very much at home in a town this size.”
For years, Woerner was happy with the simple practice of tending to the animals of his community.
“It was often harder dealing with the humans than it was the animals," he likes to say. "It didn’t take long for me to notice that the most well-behaved animals usually had good owners, much like the way parents treat their children.”
In the early 1990s, Woerner saw the need for a kennel in the area and built The AnimaLodge Pet Resort, just off I-90 near Laurel. The kennel was successful and spurred another branch of the business called Faithful Friend: Animal Memories, which is a crematorium for pets.
“You’d be surprised how many people would rather cremate their pets than bury them,” he said. “We even get quite a few horses!”
About eight years ago, Woerner’s son Russ started working for him, although he is not a veterinarian. But he has a good head for business, and Woerner hired on a full-time and a couple of part-time vets so that he could devote more time to his passion.
Which leads to the question: How did Woerner’s interest in the bison became such an obsession?
“Well it started about 25 years ago, when they were having so many issues with the bison in Yellowstone Park,” Woerner explains, referring to a period when there was controversy over whether the bison from the Park were transmitting disease to nearby cattle ranches.
“If it wasn’t for the Lacey Act (a 1900 act that prohibits the trade of animals that are illegally taken), these animals could have very well gone extinct,” he noted.
There were only about two dozen bison left in Yellowstone Park when this act was instituted. Since then, the herd in Yellowstone has slowly grown to become one of the biggest in the country.
“What we did to the bison is very much the same as what we did to the Native Americans, and I think we are still paying the price for both of these things,” Woerner commented. "I think the more we can adopt the way of life that was natural to this region, which worked for centuries before we came along, the better our chances of creating a sustainable system.”
So a big part of Woerner’s motivation for opening this museum is to educate the public, both about the history of bison and also about how these animals need to be treated now. In his experience as a vet, has watched many ranchers try to raise bison with the same methodology that they applied to cattle, and it just doesn’t work.
Executing his plan
Woerner is friends with Temple Grandin, the woman who has revolutionized the approach to raising large animals, and he has learned a lot from her and other like-minded people about how to design corrals and raise bison.
As one simple example, “When a bison gets scared, they always try to return to wherever it was they just came from," Woerner said. "So they have put a lot of thought into designing corral systems for bison that will lead them to believe, when they try to run, that they are going back to where they came from, when in fact that corral is directing them toward where you want them to go,”
Another example he gave is moving bison from one pasture to another. The standard practice with cattle of opening the gate and having a couple of cowboys push them through on horseback — or, in today’s ranch world, with four-wheelers — doesn’t work with bison. They will simply go the other way or even charge the rider if they’re angry enough.
Woerner sums up his philosophy: "Open the gate and let them figure it out for themselves."
A few pellets can also entice them, he said.
He said people should consider how bison originally grazed on the Great Plains.
"There was no expensive infrastructure and no man-made capital costs," Woerner said. "Overhead was nonexistent. Breeding season was short and concentrated, plus a strict, uncompromising culling policy was always adhered to."
If all goes as planned, Woerner’s dream includes a company called Natural Animal Services, which will provide information and services to ranchers who are interested in raising bison, a co-op for cattle and bison ranches that are interested in adopting his approach, a slaughter and processing plant (called From Prairie To Plate) for bison and cattle raised in the region and retail outlets for the resulting products.
This might sound like an ambitious goal, but to Woerner, the driving force is much bigger than a business. It is an avocation that is inspired by his belief that much of what is happening in the livestock industry is harmful to the land, animals and our economy.
Woerner has already started with the educational part of the program. A few years ago, he unexpectedly became the owner of a couple of bison that had escaped from a large animal sanctuary that had closed after funding ran out. Cowboys were attempting to round up the bison to move them when they escaped. Woerner, who was trained to use a tranquilizer, was called.
The plan was to relocate the bison to ZooMontana, but that didn’t work out. So Woerner ended up caring for the animals, which he called Bert and Ernie, for a year and a half.
When Woerner had to put the animals down, he had an idea inspired by an exhibit at the Museum of the Rockies. So once he butchered the animals (“I shed a few tears, I have to admit,”) he boiled the bones and got in touch with a taxidermist friend in Cody, Wyo. — Ray Hatfield — about using the hides and the skeletons of these two animals to form a full-sized exhibit showing how their skeletal structure fits within their bodies.
Hatfield was excited about the idea, and Ernie now resides in the Buffalo Bill Museum in Cody, while Woerner uses Bert as part of a traveling museum. He converted an RV into a showcase, where he displays Bert as well as several poster boards that give a history of the animal in the region.
Woerner has toured much of the state with his traveling bison show, giving talks at schools and at various conferences and gatherings like the annual Buffalo Summit, which meets on the Fort Peck Reservation.
Woerner is remodeling the building near ZooMontana in order to have a permanent home for the exhibit — which he plans to open later this year.