BATAVIA, Ill. | When Cleo Garcia, of Batavia, tells his friends or relatives that he works with the roads and grounds crew at Fermilab, the physics research laboratory here, it doesn't usually inspire a lot of jealousy.
Until he tells them that he also cares for the herd of bison that lives there.
"Then they want to come and see them, and they say that they wish they had my job," Garcia said.
Garcia has worked at Fermilab for 11 years and has watched over the bison for the last three. He inherited the job after the previous caretaker retired and his replacement was injured in a non-bison-related accident.
The bison don't need a lot of care, and much of the time Garcia spends around them is taking care of the grounds more than the animals. Each day he takes an early morning drive through the pasture to check on the bison and makes sure the fences are intact. He keeps them stocked with hay and water, mows the grass and does other seasonal chores.
This time of year he keeps a more watchful eye on the bison since it's calving season. When it's time for the expectant moms to give birth, they usually pull away from the herd. The Fermilab herd has had three babies born so far this season, and officials expect another seven to nine births.
The herd currently numbers 25. The Fermilab staff tries to keep the number in the low 20s, and some of them will be sold to keep the herd at a manageable level. Fermilab's first director, Robert Wilson, brought in the animals in 1969 to honor the heritage of the laboratory site, in western DuPage County northeast of Aurora.
The bison are only a portion of Garcia's job. With a 10-square-mile area to maintain, the roads and grounds crew spends much of its time on, well, the roads and the grounds.
Trees need to be maintained or removed, roads and culverts repaired, and recently they've been almost exclusively cleaning up after the April flooding that hit the lab grounds as hard as Garcia can remember in his years there. It keeps him busy, and the variety is the key for him.
"I like the type of work I do because it's different every day and you're outside," he said. "There are other places you could work roads and grounds, but the big difference working here is the bison."
Garcia grew up in Durango, Mexico, and used to help his uncles on their ranches.
"I used to take care of animals down in Mexico before I moved here when I was 17," Garcia said.
He's learned a lot about bison since then, most important being leave them alone whenever possible. Aside from vaccination time in the fall, he rarely if ever handles them, or even approaches them on foot.
"You can't handle them like cows," he said. "They're wild animals."