As the park animal keeper for William S. Hart Park, Rachael Komulainen has a pretty interesting job: After all, not many show up to work each day to be greeted by hundreds of pumpkins gifted by generous community members.
And there aren’t many gigs in the suburbs where you get to tend to a small, lovable herd of bison.
The pumpkin collection at Hart Park is becoming an annual tradition, she said Monday, and every day since the request was put out on social media by a volunteer shortly before Halloween, Komulainen has been greeted by more pumpkins when she shows up to “the office.”
And there’s a group at the park that enjoys the winter squash even more than she does: The bison.
Her herd of 10 “babies,” as she calls them — although the wooly beasts grow to more than 1,000 pounds — are often mistakenly referred to in North America as buffalo, Komulainen said.
They’ve probably eaten a few hundred pumpkins since the middle of October, she added.
Before a feast, she sets about smashing pumpkins in front of a captive audience that gathers around her. (Eat your heart out, Billy Corgan.) The multicolored gourds have to be broken into pieces before the bison can really enjoy them because their jaws don’t have upper teeth that let them bite into the pumpkins, she said. So she drops them off at the edge of her white pickup truck before they’re “served.”
Some even jockey for position on the other side of the chain-link fence around their pen, as the bison have a pecking order. Roosevelt, the father of the closed herd, is firmly at the top and will remind anyone who gets in between him and a pumpkin of that fact, so Komulainen walks along the fence heaving pumpkin pieces over it at different points to make sure everyone gets some.
“You can tell how much they like (the pumpkins),” she said with a smile, “because of how close they’re gathered.”
The normally nomadic bison wander through three pens in the 260-acre park, but on Monday, all 10 lined up within a few feet of the chain-link fence, an interesting suburban setting. The field that hosts the feeding frenzy sits adjacent to the parking lot of the L.A. County vaccine center, which replaced the old senior center on Market Street. It’s also part of a serene 45-minute walk through the park’s ground, Komulainen said.
The bison back story
The herd of bison is a relic from a time gone past in many ways.
“Renowned producer Walt Disney in Newhall Monday to Present Gift of Buffalo Herd to Wm. S. Hart Park” was the front-page, above-the-fold headline in The Signal April 12, 1962.
He was here to donate eight “buffalos,” which is what early foreign settlers to America mistakenly referred to the bison as, Komulainen said, adding there are differences, but the misconception is so widespread the terms often are used incorrectly.
The original herd was purchased by the famed animator from a ranch in La Puente, with an eighth bull brought in from Wyoming. The bison were featured in “Sancho the Homesick Steer,” according to The Signal’s archives.
“Unloading operations will take place at the west gate of the ranch on Market Street,” the article noted, which is right where Monday’s open-air buffet took place.
The seeds and the stringy innards of the pumpkin are the bison’s favorite part, but Komulainen said they’ll eat everything but the stem before they’re through. By Tuesday morning, there wouldn’t be any evidence of the 25 pumpkins that were dropped, then picked up and thrown over the fence — except for the remnants of the stems.
And in addition to being a treat the herd enjoys, the fruit also acts as a dewormer, she said.
Komulainen said Monday the park is very appreciative of its donated pumpkins, and if anyone has any that are in great shape — they must be uncut and unpainted — and they would like to donate, they can always be delivered to the corral outside her office, which is behind the park’s giftshop.
After the bison’s snack time Monday, the park’s keeper said she was getting back to helping to prepare for a free community event Saturday, when the park is hosting its third annual Barnyard Lights Tour.
One of the reasons why the park is hosting events like the tour is to let more people know about all the resources the park offers.
The park is opening its doors Saturday from 5 to 7:30 p.m. The event includes a petting zoo, which also features horses, chickens, pigs and more, pictures with Santa, crafting and a raffle.
The park is located at 24151 Newhall Ave. in Newhall. For more information, call Hart Park’s office at 661-259-1750.