Calgary

'Bison Whisperer' dies, leaving behind a larger than life legacy

Jim Sautner wore many hats in his time on earth. He was an oil rig manager, a long haul truck driver, an entrepreneur, and a rancher. But perhaps most notably, he was also the owner of two tamed Bison that garnered world-wide fame.

Jim Sautner, the owner of 2 famous tamed bison, changed how many people saw the animals

Jim Sautner outfitted an old Pontiac to give his bison rides in. (Supplied by Lisa Sautner)

Jim Sautner wore many hats in his time on earth. He was an oil rig manager, a long-haul truck driver, an entrepreneur, and a rancher.

But perhaps most notably, he was also the owner of two tamed bison that garnered worldwide fame. 

Since his death on Jan. 9, his daughter Lisa Sautner says she has received condolences from across the country, and expects that more will continue to flood her inbox as the word spreads. 

"It's hard enough to lose your father, but it's really overwhelmingly difficult to lose somebody that the whole world knows," Sautner said. 

"Dad has touched so many people, and I think his legacy is going to live on for a long, long time, if not forever."

Born and raised on a farm in Kindersley Sask., Jim — who was born in 1947 — had a love of animals from the start, his daughter said. 

His lifelong dream of ranching eventually led him to buy a quarter section near Crossfield, Alta., in 1995.

He bought 10 bison calves, the beginnings of a herd which would at its highest reach 400 animals before being tapered down at the onset of bovine spongiform encephalopathy, also known as BSE, in 2003. 

Bailey the bison and Jim Sautner resting at the Calgary Stampede. (Submitted by Lisa Sautner )

"Jim had found his passion," says his ex-wife Linda Sautner, who was married to him at that time.

"He just really loved being there with them, he could lose hours in a day just watching them."

It was shortly after he embarked on his bison operation that Jim adopted a calf that had been abandoned by its mother. Through bottle feeding the calf, the two established an incredible bond. 

Jim named him Bailey. 

"[Bailey] had the run of the yard at [the farm in] Crossfield," said Linda. "Everywhere Jim went, Bailey followed." 

Having been already involved in the Calgary Stampede with horses, Jim was asked if he could bring a bison to the event's Country Critters exhibit. Jim brought Bailey, and instead of leaving him alone, began to sleep with him in his pen.

Newspapers in Calgary and Edmonton quickly caught on, and Jim and Bailey's fame spread like wildfire. 

The pair were covered by international media, featured in Ripley's Believe it or Not! and were asked to come to an array of parades and events.

"Everybody can walk up to a horse and [pet] a horse, but nobody has been able to walk up and pet a bison, and smell what they smell like, and feel what they feel like," says Lisa. 

"Dad gave [people] the opportunity to be around a majestic, wild animal." 

In a career highlight, Bailey met Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip in Edmonton in 2005, on a royal tour to celebrate the province's centennial, an experience that Jim treasured dearly. 

Jim Sautner at the Calgary Stampede with his horse Drifter. (Submitted by Lisa Sautner )

Bailey died in an accident in 2008 at Jim and Linda's farm Spruce Grove, Alta., where the couple had relocated.

Sautner was devastated by the loss, but had his spirits lifted through the adoption of a second orphaned bison soon after, who he named Bailey Junior. 

His family says they hope he will be remembered for his unique achievements, and how he allowed people to experience bison in a new way.

While he was very proud of the way he had tamed two bison — animals known to become quite aggressive and unpredictable as adults — Lisa said she believes he would have done it with or without the media attention.

"Even if it would have just been him and Bailey in his own backyard with nobody looking, he would have done it anyways."

While the moniker "The Bison Whisperer" brought a grin to Jim's face when he heard it, Linda says he didn't believe he had any magical talents. 

"I believe he really did have an incredible ability with animals, and he seemed to understand what they were trying to say with their body language — I don't think that's a gift that many people in the world have."

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