“Out on Quincy Junction Road just outside Quincy, in the heart of American Valley, was a rare sight to behold. To the left, in the pasture along Buffalo Trail, if you looked just right, you might get lucky and catch a glimpse of a magnificent creature, Coco the Buffalo.”
This is how Bueford Cunningham began his letter to this newspaper describing Coco the Buffalo, the loving relationship he and others had with Coco and why Coco had to be killed.
Later in the letter, Bueford wrote, “On Jan. 21, the Cunninghams said a heartfelt goodbye to the family pet who was loved and appreciated, not only by the family, but the whole community.”
Trina Cunningham was a single mother with three kids, Marvin, Sierra and Ty, living out in the North Arm of Indian Valley.
She was working for a pharmacy and helping at a ranch to inoculate bison.
One day Trina was out in a pasture with four bull bison, when the dominant bull began to bellow from 100 yards away.
“It was one of the times in my life when I was filled with awe, pure awe to hear that bull thunder. It felt like the ground was shaking,” said Cunningham.
Sometimes buffalo cows at the ranch didn’t accept their calves and the calves would die.
Although Cunningham had more than enough on her plate with three kids and a job, she asked the rancher to call her the next time the ranch had a calf that the mother wouldn’t raise.
Cunningham expected that she would get a call on a weekend and that she would have time to get ready for the calf.
Instead, she received a call at work from the ranch on a weekday in May 2004. She had to go to the ranch right after work and pickup a newborn calf. It was all very sudden.
The calf came with only a day’s worth of formula and a single quart-sized nursing bottle. However, bison calves drink a gallon of fluids at a time when they nurse.
So, Cunningham had to drive into Quincy where she bought four more quart-sized nursing bottles and a whole lot more formula
A day later, the rancher decided that maybe he had been too hasty in giving the calf away and asked for the calf back.
Cunningham tried to talk him out of it as Coco the Buffalo had already been introduced to her children and she was worried that the herd might not accept the calf, as she now smelled so much like humans after being held by her children.
The rancher put the 2 day-old calf into a pasture. Immediately, the dominant bull came up, smelled Coco and started pushing the calf out into the pasture, away from the rest of the herd.
The bull then rammed Coco, tossed her into the air and then trampled on her after she hit the ground.
Then the bull did this again.
Fortunately, Cunningham and the rancher had followed the calf and the bull in the rancher’s truck.
As the bull was coming around for a third attack on Coco, the rancher pulled out a revolver from under his seat and shot into the ground in front of the charging bull.
The bull stopped in his tracks. The rancher had just enough time to run in, grab the calf and run back to the truck.
Coco, of course, was badly injured.
They put Coco in a shed with a heat lamp. The ranch manager and Cunningham’s dad, Marvin, took turns coming in at night to force electrolytes down Coco.
However, Coco kept getting worse.
After the third day, the rancher decided that if Coco wasn’t better by the fourth day, that he might have to be put the calf down.
They gave Coco a general antibiotic in hopes it would help her.
On the following morning, Coco lifted her head up for the first time. By the afternoon, she was standing up!
Trina took Coco home and put her in a stock pen with a pygmy goat named “Mo,” who was her daughter’s 4-H project.
The buffalo calf and the pygmy goat were raised together and became great friends.
After Coco got older, people would drive by and see Cunningham and her children playing chase with the buffalo and the goat in their front yard. The whole family also went on hikes together.
When Coco was 1 year old, Cunningham’s children were old enough that they were starting to become involved in sports. When she wasn’t working, Cunningham was spending all her time shuttling her kids into Greenville.
Cunningham decided she had to move into town. Coco needed a place to live.
How Coco came to Quincy
Cunningham had an uncle, Bueford Cunningham who wrote the letter, who was looking for a way to reduce vegetation on Indian Trust land just outside Quincy. He agreed to take in Coco.
Bueford had never married. Coco the Buffalo and Mo the pygmy goat moved in and became part of Bueford’s family.
Coco lived with Bueford for 12 years and Bueford came to love Coco, too.
Bueford said, “Whenever I called her, Coco would come running.
He said, “She was smart too” and she loved apples.
Bueford would shake an apple tree to get apples to drop down so that Coco could eat them.
Coco watched Bueford and she learned how to shake a limb of the apple tree so that she could get her own apples.
Once Coco got out and Bueford couldn’t figure out how she did it.
Bueford hid behind a building and watched.
He saw Coco put her horns under the swinging road gate and lift the gate straight up off its hinges!
“I should have put the hinges in the other way around,” Bueford said.
Although a pet, Coco was still a wild animal, and a very large one. When she died, Coco weighed 1,600 pounds.
Coco could also run very fast. American bison can run 40 mph and then turn and stop on a dime.
At least you hoped Coco stopped.
As Bueford said, “Her size and strength were impressive!”
Cunningham noted that Coco could be aggressive when it came to food.
Several times Trina found herself between Coco and food. It was scary.
One day Bueford was sitting out by an apple tree with Mo the pygmy goat. He had just given Coco some apples to eat. Coco came up and butted Bueford in the chest, her horns hitting him as well.
Bueford stood his ground and ordered Coco to “stop it.” Fortunately, she did as she was told.
Coco wanted Bueford to give her some more apples and butting him was her buffalo way of telling him so.
How Coco Died
Bueford described how Coco met her end, “A modern day case of ‘Cowboys versus Indians’ took a turn for the worse.”
Bueford had built a small corral on a high area for Coco to stay dry when American Valley flooded.
After recent rains, Coco had pushed through the small corral and then through the fence connecting her pasture with a neighbor’s property.
The neighbor threatened to shoot Coco if she got out again, said Bueford.
Bueford attempted to reconcile with the neighbor, but to no avail.
After numerous phone calls trying to find a home for Coco and no way to make the fence between the pasture and the neighbor’s land “buffalo-proof,” Bueford felt he had no choice but to have Coco humanely put down.
Bueford said, “I got some guys to come in and shoot and butcher her. I didn’t want to hear the shot or hear anything about it. I left.”
A bear had killed Coco’s friend Mo the pygmy goat earlier.
Before she died, Bueford said, “Many people stopped by to ask questions and take a closer look at her.
“Coco was a descendant of the American Bison who were almost hunted to extinction in the 1800s.
“She gave us a firsthand look at the magnificent beasts that once roamed this land freely.
“She was a symbol of our Native American heritage.
“Her presence will be greatly missed.”
Bueford and Trina Cunningham
Bueford Cunningham is 75 years old and a Mountain Maidu. He estimates there are 200 Mountain Maidu still living in Plumas County.
Cunningham was born in Quincy, but grew up in Genesee. He graduated from Greenville High School.
In 1960, Cunningham went to work for a mill in Meadow Valley. After a few years, his uncle asked him to come to work at the Cedar Mill in Quincy.
In 1966, Cunningham was drafted and stationed with a combat engineering outfit in Germany.
In 1968, he returned to work at the Cedar Mill. In 1971, Cunningham went to work for the Quincy Mill.
Cunningham worked for the Quincy Mill until he retired in 2000. He worked in mills for a total of 40 years
Cunningham said he did a little of everything for the mills. For the last 15-20 years at the Quincy Mill, he said he worked as a millwright and gang boss, among other jobs.
Now retired, Cunningham doesn’t have a computer and seldom watches TV. He spends most of his time outside: gold mining, fly-fishing, gathering firewood and helping people work on their race cars.
Trina Cunningham has a bachelor of arts from California State University Chico where she studied geography and planning
She was a Traditional Ecology Coordinator with the Maidu Summit Consortium from 2001 – 2013.
Trina Cunningham works now as a consultant, to help integrate traditional indigenous ecological thinking and methods into contemporary conservation practices.
Trina Cunningham works with Feather River Land Trust, Plumas Audubon and other conservation organizations and Maidu people to apply traditional ecological methods to conservation lands.
She helped to develop a land management plan for the Feather River Campus and adjacent federal lands. She has also worked to integrate traditional ecological concepts and methodologies into FRC’s curriculum.
Trina Cunningham also works with tribal communities to help them retain their traditional knowledge through meaningful access to their ancestral lands.
With the Maidu Summit Consortium, Trina Cunningham is seeking fee-title ownership to the tribe’s ancestral homeland in Tasmam Koyom, Humbug Valley, currently owned by PG&E.