Cows and horses[*] were unknown to the native Americans until the Spaniards introduced them during the conquest; they had never been seen by the natives before and the fear or surprise that these beasts caused could have deeply impressed them, inspiring the many myths involving bulls and magic Calimayo horses.
[*] See our post on the possible survival of supposedly extinct pre-Hispanic horses.
Cattle frequently ran wild because they escaped from their enclosures and returned to their natural untamed ways in the Andean forests. Their mythical charm may have been heightened by their ferocious character: wild cattle are bad, mean and dangerous beasts.
English explorer Musters (in 1869/70) had a nasty experience in what is now Chubut province, at the fork where Huemul and Carrenleufu rivers merge. He took part of an ill fated wild cattle hunt in which a bull killed a horse, dismounted its Indian rider and trampled Musters breaking two of his ribs.
The wide range of “bull-like” creatures reported at several Patagonian lakes (see our posts on these Lake Bulls, could actually be a real bull or cow inside a lake.
Feral (i.e. wild) cattle have often been seen in Patagonia close to the water, frolicking in the lakes; Prichard at Lake Argentino (1901) saw an “old yellow bull knee-deep in the lake, drinking”.
How did these wild European cows get into Patagonia?
There were no cows in America when the Spaniards arrived, all were brought from Spain. The first cattle were introduced into Argentina in 1549, they reached the Pampas in the 1580s and found a very favorable habitat for expansion. They moved southwards towards Patagonia where natural selection and tough environmental constraints shaped them into a new variety, the “Creole” breed.
Cattle was taken into Patagonia in 1781 to the town of Floridablanca, at San Julián (49°18’ S, 67°42’ W), which was soon abandoned.
Cattle was also taken to a Spanish settlement at Valdés Peninsula (42°28’ S, 64°28’ W), from where they moved westwards towards the Andes after the Tehuelche and Mapuche raided and destroyed the colony in 1810.
The Spanish towns in Chile’s Arauco region, razed in the first wars with the Mapuche (1598-1641) and the abandoned Jesuit Missions in northern Patagonia also had cattle which ran wild in the Andean forests.
All of these stray cows and bulls were the founders of the Patagonian breed of Creole cattle that still survives in some isolated spots of Patagonia in a wild state.
Amazing wild Patagonian cows
One of these spots where wild Creole cows can be found is the “Los Glaciares” National Park in southwestern Santa Cruz Province where they live in the mountains between Lake Argentino’s fjords and the Southern Continental Ice Field.
This population of wild cows is unique because it has adapted extremely well to the tough cold climate by the glaciers where it freezes to below -10°C in winter (14°F). They are the only group of cows in the world with this ability to resist the cold.
However, being exotic animals, Creole cows harm the environment; they trample and eat the saplings and young sprouts of the local trees and feed on the lichens that grow on the rocks. They also compete against the huemul and guanaco displacing them in their foraging activities.
They have been studied by a team from an Argentine University (Universidad Nacional de Lomas de Zamora) who noted that in less than a century, the short tough hair of the Argentine Creole cattle evolved into a thick fur that can measure up to 10 cm (4 in.) in winter, shortening to 2 cm (0.8 in.) in summer. This shaggy coat gives them a yak-like look and protects them from the cold.
Prichard, who hunted wild cows in this same area, said that the “As a rule, wild cattle avoid open ground” seeking the protection of the woods. It is in the forests that they can be formidable and dangerous opponents; they are fearsome creatures whose long horns are similar to those of the ancient European uro.
Though they were hunted to extinction in Chile they still exist in northern Chilean Patagonian folk tales; at Osorno, there is a Laguna del Toro (Bull’s Lagoon), with the legend of a “bagual” bull that threw himself into its waters preferring suicide to death at the hands of its hunters.
Bagual is a word used in Chile and Argentina referring to wild Patagonian cows and horses. They were also known as “animales lobos” or “wolf animals”, an intriguing name as, “officially” there are no wolves in the whole of South America; however, at our post on Patagonian wolves, there may have been wolves in Patagonia. And these could have inspired the name. Alternatively, there is a strange wolfish bovine, the lobo-toro or wolf-bull, which we will mention in our next post.
 Musters, G. Op. Cit. pp. 146 - 148.
 Prichard, H. Op. Cit. pp. 239. Plate facing pp. 230.
 Martínez, R., et al., (2000). El ganado bovino criollo en Argentina. Archivos de zootecnia v. 49, N° 187:354. 09-2000.
 Prichard, H. Op. Cit. pp. 233 and 244.
 Bavera, G., (2006). El pelaje del bovino y su importancia en la producción. Chap VII:8.
Check out Prichard's book online! our quotes can be found on pp. 229 and 234:
Copyright 2009 by Austin Whittall ©