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Behind the scenes with buffalo handlers at the University of Colorado

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This article is part of ongoing reporting and production for a new episode of Colorado Experience. Season 10 of Colorado Experience is set to premiere this September.

BOULDER, Colo. — The clink of weights hit the gym floor at 7 a.m. It’s an early morning workout many Division I college athletes are familiar with, but this one doesn’t involve a ball —  instead it requires handling a nearly 1,000-pound animal on stage unlike any other sport.

“The crowd is crescendoing up to a huge roar. And then the buffalo runs and you get to run out behind her and the crowd goes wild," Taylor Stratton, the Ralphie Live Mascot program manager. "And so you can't get that anywhere else, that's just here,” she said of the moment handlers run out on Folsom Field with Ralphie, a buffalo and live mascot for the University of Colorado, Boulder (CU).

In August, Stratton expects many people to apply for a spot on her team's roster. With the unprecedented changes new University of Colorado football coach Deion Sanders has made for the team, Stratton said she expects the excitement to carry over to the Ralphie Live Mascot program. 

In 2022, 85 people applied for seven spots on the team. Applications are open to any full-time undergraduate or graduate student at the University of Colorado. The selection process involves physical tests and an interview. 

“It's one of my favorite times of the year because we're finding our new class of Ralphie handlers who are able to sort of carry on our proud tradition and take this program and continue to elevate it,” Stratton said. 

Running Ralphie onto the field is an all-hands-on-deck effort. The handlers keep her in a small corral on the field until it’s time to run. When the gates open, four handlers — two on each side — run with ropes around Folsom Field, aiming to direct Ralphie to her trailer and close the door behind her. The team can reach speeds up to 25 miles per hour. Braden Behr, a fourth-year handler, likens the experience to just hoping to keep up and not get dragged by a buffalo. 

“50,000 people staring at me, watching whatever I do. And it's … nervous,” Behr said. "But at the same time, it's a huge adrenaline rush, and it's unlike anything else I could ever imagine.”

Behr’s older brother, Colton, was a handler and is now the assistant program manager who has a deep passion for the program.

“She is, in my opinion, the best live mascot. A lot of them just stand on the sidelines [and] she's out running,” Colton Behr said.

Colton Behr and Stratton have a strong connection with Ralphie, who is the sixth live buffalo mascot at CU.  

Ralphie handlers running with Ralphie I, who was active from 1966-1978. Photo courtesy of CU Boulder.

Ralphie’s history

In 1966, the father of a CU freshman purchased a six-month-old buffalo calf and donated her to the university. She stood on the sidelines and slept in the trailer. Then, the next year the head coach along with university staff decided she would lead the football team out onto Folsom Field and the tradition was born. 

Since the tradition began 57 years ago, the school has kept extensive records and histories on each Ralphie, which are posted on the university’s website. All have been female because they weigh about half the size of male buffalo, which can average upwards of 2,500 pounds. 

The school’s current mascot, Ralphie VI, is 3 years old. A university alumnus connected a bison rancher with CU to become the new mascot after Ralphie VI was abandoned by her mother. Stratton and Behr have cared for her since she was only a few months old and only 125 pounds.

“Having been raised so differently as an orphan, people are what she loves,” Stratton said. “I'll be out there at her ranch, and we clean up her pastures every single day, and we're out there and we do enrichment every single day.”

Ralphie VI is currently about 800 pounds and is expected to grow to 1,000 pounds. Her handlers are also hopeful that as she grows, she’ll be able to run a little faster. 

“She's an absolute sweetheart. Her and I get along really well,” Colton Behr said. “It's the best part of my day seeing her, and hopefully it's the best part of hers too.”

Ralphie lives on a ranch where Behr and Stratton conduct her daily care. The handlers go to the ranch to meet and work with her, but the location is a secret because of a series of incidents years ago in which opposing teams kidnapped Ralphie as a stunt. 

Taylor Stratton is the first full-time program manager for the Ralphie Live Mascot program. She helps train the handlers and works with Ralphie daily. 

“I grew up with a background in cattle, and I've learned so much about Buffalo that they are just very, very different. Cattle are very domesticated,” Stratton said. “Buffalo are very different. They're significantly more unpredictable. They are still very wild at heart.”

Stratton and Behr teach students how to interact with Ralphie and read her body language. Outside of her famous runs across Folsom Field, Ralphie appears with the handlers for certain university-related events where pictures are allowed but petting is not.

“[We] never let them pet her because I wouldn't like to be grabbed by strangers and we give her the same courtesy,” said Stratton. “A large part of what the team does is they stand there around her to make sure she knows that they're with her and she feels safe and secure.”

Training a buffalo to run across a field with 50,000 screaming fans and unpredictable noises can be difficult. So the team practices with her to make the process easier for her. For example, they try to make Ralphie’s trailer her favorite place in the world with a lot of treats to greet her when she enters.

“It's not normal for a buffalo to go out and run in front of 50,000 people. But she loves doing it. She's super brave when she does it,” Braden Behr said.

Colton Behr is a former Ralphie handler and current assistant program manager who assists in developing physical training for current handlers.

Ralphie’s handlers undergo intensive training, which includes weight lifting and sprint conditioning. Stratton and Behr say the handlers will never be as strong or as fast as Ralphie, but getting as close as they can creates the safest environment for everyone. 

“One of the reasons we do so much training is to prevent injuries. And then also just make sure that when you do get out there and there are 50,000 people yelling … you're ready and you know what's coming and muscle memory can take over if it needs to,” Stratton said.

Most Ralphies stay active for about eight to 10 years, though Ralphie V ran for longer. Colton Behr said she was just different: she was bigger, stronger and faster. Her handlers also believed she simply loved to run.

Short history of the buffalo

Before Europeans colonized the United States, historians estimated up to 70 million bison roamed across North America. Many Indigenous tribes whose homeland is Colorado, like the Lakota, Cheyenne, Arapahoe and Ute, had and continue to have deep and strong relationships with the buffalo, who are often considered relatives.

[Related: Denver works to earn trust and donates bison to Tribal Nations]

Buffalo is also the national mammal and often seen as a symbol for the American West. The university’s Boulder campus is decorated with buffalo statues, emblems and art.

“Ralphie is Colorado. She is Boulder. She is CU,” Colton Behr said. “She is what draws people together."

While the Ralphie live mascot program is largely popular, Stratton said she has received some negative feedback about keeping a buffalo as a live mascot.

For her, the handlers and assistant coach Behr, their hearts lie with the animal. 

“We do appreciate and respect how important they are to not only this community but other communities throughout the world,” said Stratton. “I am one of the luckiest people in the world because I get to wake up every morning and the first thing I do is either come here to this gorgeous facility that we're at and I get to work with some of the hardest working athletes that I've ever been near … or I drive out to a quiet, peaceful ranch and I take care of Buffalo who I love.”

Ralphie VI is currently 3 years old and still growing. She appears to have a long career ahead of her. Photo courtesy CU Boulder. 


Peter Vo is the journalism intern with Rocky Mountain PBS. You can reach him at petervo@rmpbs.org.

Amanda Horvath is the managing producer at Rocky Mountain PBS. You can reach her at amandahorvath@rmpbs.org

Alexis Kikoen is the executive producer at Rocky Mountain PBS. You can reach her at alexiskikoen@rmpbs.org. 

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