Panicked screams pierced the air at Yellowstone National Park as visitors scattered.
A large bison meandering around a grassy hillside nearby had abruptly changed course. It was now thundering toward the group of people, headed straight for a girl. Onlookers gasped. Wordless shrieks mixed with shouts of "Oh, my God!"
In seconds, the powerful animal had reached the child, who was trying in vain to outrun it. With a swift toss of its head, the charging bison catapulted her high into the sky like a rag doll, flipping her head over heels before gravity sent her tumbling to the ground.
The alarming scene was captured in a 12-second video that was first shared Monday, July 22, to Twitter and has since gone viral, serving as the latest reminder of the danger that can arise when people venture too close to wild animals. Before the original clip was deleted early Wednesday, it had racked up more than 4 million views and roughly 38,000 retweets.
On Tuesday, the National Park Service confirmed that a 9-year-old girl from Odessa, Florida, was injured after a male bison charged at her and tossed her into the air Monday afternoon near the Old Faithful Geyser area. Yellowstone is home to about 4,900 wild bison as well as a number of elk, wolves and bears.
"According to witnesses, a group of approximately 50 people were within 5-10 feet of the bison for at least 20 minutes before eventually causing the bison to charge the group," the National Park Service said in a news release. In the video, two other people could be seen fleeing from the bison before it struck the girl.
The girl's family took her to a nearby lodge where the park's emergency medical providers treated her for unspecified injuries, the release said. She was then transported to one of the park's medical clinics, where she was later released.
Though the person who originally shared the video claimed that the family was petting the bison before it charged, officials said no citations have been issued and the incident is still under investigation. According to park regulations visitors are prohibited from "willfully remaining near or approaching wildlife, including nesting birds, within any distance that disturbs or displaces the animal."
"Wildlife in Yellowstone National Park are wild," the release noted. "When an animal is near a trail, boardwalk, parking lot, or in a developed area, give it space."
Visitors to the sprawling national park, which spreads across northwestern Wyoming and into Montana and Idaho, repeatedly are warned to "never approach animals" because they are "wild and unpredictable, no matter how calm they appear to be." After Monday's attack, officials stressed that people should stay at least 25 yards, or 75 feet, away from bison and other large animals such as elk, bighorn sheep, deer, moose and coyotes. When encountering a wolf or bear, the suggested distance increases to 100 yards, or 300 feet.
Of all the wildlife that roams Yellowstone, bison are responsible for injuring more visitors than any other animal, officials said. The largest land-dwelling mammals in North America "can be aggressive, are agile, and can run up to 30 miles per hour," which is three times as fast as humans, according to the Park Service. Males, or bulls, can weigh up to 2,000 pounds and stand six feet tall.
Although it is difficult to anticipate how a bison will act, officials said movements of the animal's tail can gauge its mood. In video of Monday's incident, the bison's tail went from hanging to standing straight up, often a sign that the animal is preparing to charge. Still, the Park Service emphasized caution.
"Every year, there are regrettable accidents caused by people getting too close to these massive animals," the Park Service said. "It's great to love the bison, but love them from a distance."
From 1983 to 1985, Yellowstone saw 33 bison-related injuries, prompting officials to launch outreach campaigns to raise awareness about safety, according to a 2016 report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Now, a flier is distributed at the park's entrances and prominent signage has been erected near campgrounds, roads and in visitor centers, the report said.
People nevertheless continue to disregard safety guidelines and place themselves in risky situations. A 2018 study examined the cases of 25 people injured by bison over a recent 15-year span and found that they were on average about 11 feet away from the animals at the time of the attacks. The study, which was published in the journal One Health, reported that 80 percent of the people "actively approached bison before their injuries."
"Education alone might not be sufficient to reduce bison-related injuries," researchers wrote.
In 2015, between the months of May and July, five people were injured in bison encounters, four of them so severely that they required hospitalization, according to the CDC report. Several incidents occurred because people were attempting to photograph the animal or snap selfies, the report said.
"The temptation is definitely there when there's bison or elk right there near the trail to try to get close and get pictures," Traci Weaver, a Yellowstone public affairs officer, told the Associated Press in 2015.
Other visitors appeared to be more daring. In 2016, a viral video showed a woman repeatedly trying to pet a bison that was lying down in the Old Faithful area, the Kansas City Star reported. Much to the surprise of bystanders, she emerged from the encounter unscathed, according to the Star. Another man who was caught on camera taunting a bison last year also escaped injury but was sentenced to 130 days in jail after pleading guilty to disturbing wildlife, among other charges, the Bozeman Daily Chronicle reported.
In 2018, at least two people were injured by bison. A 72-year-old woman from Boise, Idaho, was head-butted by a bison so hard that she was thrown from the hiking trail where she had been walking, the Idaho Statesman reported in May that year. A month later, a 59-year-old California woman was gored and suffered a hip injury after a crowd she was with got too close to the animal, the Casper Star-Tribune reported. At one point, the group came within 15 feet of the animal, causing it to become agitated and charge, according to the Star-Tribune.
This article was written by Allyson Chiu, a reporter for The Washington Post.