Shamasha Kassam and his son Shekeel – the Yellowstone National Park tourists who were photographed on May 9 with a baby bison in the back of their SUV – say they were just trying to help the young calf, which was eventually rejected by its herd and euthanized.
The duo sat down with ABC’s Good Morning America on Friday, to tell their side of the story – after being cited for disturbing wildlife and being ordered to pay a $230 fine and $500 contribution to the Yellowstone Park Foundation.
The abandoned newborn approached the pair with its umbilical cord still attached. The Kassams said they tried to call rangers, but didn’t have any cell service. They then left the baby bison, but turned back about a half mile down the road to help the animal, worried it would die while they were gone.
“We didn’t have the heart to just leave it there and let it suffer as the darkness descended,” Shakeel explained. “I wasn’t 100-percent sure but when I saw the calf outside shaking, I felt this was the right thing to do.”
Shamasha, a native of Tanzania, says he grew up near a farm where poachers would often kill the mothers of young animals. In Africa, he would take the fawn to nearby rangers to look after the motherless animal. “So the thinking was that I am doing the right thing by picking up this animal and giving it to the ranger who will look after it, you know?” he said. “This was my main thinking behind it.
“I thought it was going to be a happy ending, and the calf was going to be integrated with another herd and everything was going to be fine,” Shakeel adds. “We had no idea it was going to turn out so bad like that.”
As they waited for rangers, Karen Richardson of Victor, Idaho, snapped a photo of the bison calf in the back of their SUV that quickly went viral. The photo, which has since been removed from Richardson’s Facebook page, was initially posted with the caption, “Dear tourists: the bison calf is not cold and it is not lost. PUT IT BACK!”
Richardson, who was helping out with a fifth-grade field trip to Yellowstone, told East Idaho News that the Kassams were “seriously worried that the calf was freezing or dying.”
The public, however, had a different reaction to the photo, sparking a global debate over how to interact with wildlife. One online petition even called for justice for the baby bison, seeking “harsh punishments to tourists who loaded a bison calf into their vehicle and were ultimately responsible for its death.”
Shakeel said he was “shocked” by the reaction. When they had left the calf, he said they were under the impression “the baby was going to be fine and everything was cool. Then we got back home, then the story broke ”
“It was the way it was presented,” Shamasha added. “It was like we didn’t know what we were doing. The whole story was, ‘We kidnapped the bison. We stole a bison. We picked up a bison because we thought it was cold.’ And those kind of stories were circulating all over the place. Nobody said it was abandoned.”
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Yellowstone rangers say they attempted several times to reunite the calf with the herd but their efforts failed, as the calf continued to approach tourists on the roadway.
“The rangers on scene did a heroic job trying to get that bison to go back to the herd nearby, even using lights and sirens on their vehicles to get it to move away from the road and reunite with the other buffalo,” Charissa Reid, a public affairs specialist for Yellowstone National Park, explained to PEOPLE. “But with no idea of where the calf came from or which mama bison it belonged to, there wasn’t much else they could do. The baby buffalo had to be put down.”
Reid says the calf couldn’t be placed in a zoo or animal farm because park regulations prohibit moving wild animals out of Yellowstone.
“It would have had to go through months of quarantine to be monitored for brucellosis (a bacterial disease in cattle and buffalo that can infect humans),” she says. “Our job here is not to rescue animals, but to maintain the ecological processes and integrity of this wild place. Yellowstone isn’t a zoo.”
Park regulations require visitors to maintain a distance of at least 100 yards from bears and wolves, and at least 25 yards from all other wildlife. “That is at the heart of this problem,” Reid explained. “If these people had kept their distance and contacted law enforcement, none of this would have happened.”
In recent weeks, Yellowstone authorieis had to deal with a visitor who was caught on video trying to pet an an adult bison, and a group of tourists who posed for pictures with the herd at an unsafe distance.
While Bison look harmless, Reid adds that they “injure more visitors to Yellowstone than any other animal,” adding that they can run up to 40 mph. “Last year, we had five incidents where people were gored and seriously hurt because they got too close,” she adds. “Bison are very protective of their young and can be very aggressive.”
As for whether Shamasha would handle the situation if he could do it all over again, he said: “In Yellowstone Park, we would just leave it. It s the way they are in Yellowstone Park. They don t want to interfere with nature.”