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Wild cattle of Opitsaht hold on to coastal life

TOFINO, British Columbia - One of the strangest holdovers from 20th century attempts to colonize coastal First Nations are the wild cattle of Opitsaht.

Located on Meares Island off the west coast of Vancouver Island, British Columbia, the cattle were brought by missionaries at the turn of the last century in an attempt to turn west coast First Nations people from fishers to farmers. The idea never took hold.

;'When your front yard is an ocean full of salmon and beaches covered in clams, oysters and crab, why would you care about cows?'' asked Opitsaht resident Carl Martin. ''The ha'wiih [hereditary chiefs] would occasionally allow a cow to be taken for a potlatch feast, but other than that, they've just been left alone.''

Generations of the Tla-o-qui-aht First Nation have called this place home for more than 5,000 years, making the tiny village of Opitsaht the oldest continuously occupied village in all of British Columbia.

Sixty homes line the white-sand beachfront, overlooking a small inlet towards the tourist town of Tofino.

Coming up from the small dock, one of the first things you notice is the grass - it's cropped short like a golf course green. But no one in Opitsaht owns a lawnmower. The herd of eight cattle wanders the village, keeping community lawns trimmed and fertilized.

But it's another favored food that makes the cattle truly unique: eel grass. A thin, green plant that grows in the ocean intertidal zone, the cattle can often be seen wandering the beach, munching on the sea lettuce and eel grass that is more closely related to land-based plants than to the seaweed that grows around it. The cows have adapted to coastal living.

''We sometimes tell the tourists they're water buffalo,'' laughed Martin, who has worked as a whale-watching guide, catering to the hundreds of thousands of tourists who visit the area each year.

''A few years ago we had a really deep snow, and people were worried the cows might starve, so we barged in bales of hay for them; but they didn't eat it, they just used it to sleep on.''

The people of Opitsaht were worried about the cattle earlier this year. The herd was down to one male after wolves had taken the other, more aged bull.

Cattle experts around Canada and the U.S. were contacted and asked for advice on how to save the herd. None had ever heard of wild cattle. They were intrigued, but of little help.

''We were worried. Nobody owns them, nobody bothers with them, but nobody wanted to see them disappear, either,'' said former Chief Councilor Moses Martin.

Then, in May, two calves were born - one male and one female - and the people of Opitsaht breathed a sigh of relief. They're also keeping a close watch on the bull calf, making sure nothing happens to it.

Children often feed them apples and oranges. Local wolves and cougars have been known to occasionally prey on them, but the only real concern the cattle seem to have are the reserve dogs who will often chase, nip and harass the much larger, but docile, bovines.

When the herd has had enough harassment, it wanders down a small trail to the other side of the island to a place called Kakawis.

At the site, a former Indian residential school, the buildings are now used as a healing center to treat people battling alcohol and drug abuse problems.

The cattle will graze along the grounds and beaches that front Kakawis for a week or two until, perhaps, they feel better about themselves and are able to wander back down the rainforest trail to Opitsaht and resume life there.