Even fast-growing Charlotte still has a few rural corners, and James Road has seen its share of livestock as old farmland gives way to the creep of suburbia in a corner of northeast Charlotte. But Asian water buffaloes wandering around earlier this summer was a singular event. Edgar Maquan saw them on the news and quickly figured out they belonged to his mom’s neighbor.
“I was like, ‘Wow, how come he has those animals right here?’ But it was cool,” Maquan said.
Two were corralled within a couple of hours, but a third made it five miles south through busy intersections to Albemarle Road Elementary School — where it was deemed a threat and euthanized by the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department.
What to make of those buffaloes on the loose? That answer touches on a cultural misunderstanding, a changing city and a set of surprised, but supportive neighbors from various homelands.
The buffaloes’ home for a short time was a 7-acre plot they shared with lots of farm animals. Maquan’s family, who are originally from Guatemala, likes having the animals close.
“It makes me feel … like back home we used to have chickens, goats and sheep everywhere. I like it. It’s pretty nice,” Maquan said.
‘We like the buffalo meat. There’s a lot of demand for that’
The farm belongs to George Joseph, who comes from an agricultural family in south India and grew up with water buffaloes. He immigrated to Charlotte nearly 30 years ago. He said he didn’t know the official name was Asian water buffalo.
“We use that for milking. Their poop is a good fertilizer. The male ones we use for working in the field,” Joseph said.
He says if he lost the water buffaloes in India, it wouldn’t be a news story.
Joseph is a real estate agent and leads a team that flips houses. Five years ago when Joseph bought the land where he and his wife live, he didn’t expect to start a small farm. But he got his first lawn-mowing bill for $800 and decided he could get the job done cheaper with some animal labor.
“In the beginning, we started with three cows. Then we bought four, five goats. And after two years, I bought some sheep. Sheep eat more grass than goats,” Joseph said.
That’s all legal with a permit and permissible in Charlotte as long as you have neighbors who don’t file complaints. You can have a cow in Charlotte — you just need two acres for it to roam and the proper shelter. Goats and sheep need a quarter of an acre each.
Joseph no longer has the cows, but he grew his herd of goats and sheep over the years. He also raises pigs, rabbits, ducks and guinea fowl. On wires above, sit a dozen or so vultures. He likes the birds because they keep things clean.
Joseph sells many of the animals at livestock auctions — and he thought he might be able to do the same with water buffaloes, since he says there’s a market among some Indians, Nepalese and Bhutanese.
“We like the buffalo meat. There’s a lot of demand for that,” Joseph said.
It’s hard to find water buffalo meat in North Carolina. There’s a farm in Salisbury, but Joseph says you can’t always get big quantities. He would go in with 20 other people and purchase water buffaloes from producers in Pennsylvania and South Carolina — the meat, not the living animal. But, then he thought, “Why not buy the actual animal?”
“That’s why I get a buffalo from Alabama and went all the way, 480 miles from here,” Joseph said, laughing.
He bought three of them in June. They were advertised on an exotic animal auction website. Joseph thought he would keep them for a few weeks, sell them, and make a few thousand dollars. He only had the buffaloes for 10 days or so, until, he says, some kids threw stones at them — scared, they broke through the fence and made national news.
‘Let’s help each other out, even though we don’t speak the same language’
Not all of his neighbors had heard about the water buffaloes and their escape.
“Really? Oh my gosh!” exclaimed Nga Nguyen when she found out.
Nguyen lives next door to Joseph. Growing up in Vietnam, she was used to seeing water buffaloes working in the rice paddies.
She and her daughter Lynn Hoang are more interested than alarmed by their neighbor’s latest livestock venture. It’s not always pleasant living next to all those animals, but, like their Guatemalan neighbor, Hoang says they do provide a reminder of home for her parents — and some solidarity, too.
“They have a farm, we have chickens … It’s definitely one of those things where it’s like, ‘OK, we can relate in that way,’” Hoang explained.
In some ways, she says, that’s emblematic of how things work among her neighbors who come from many different countries. Low home prices attracted many immigrants to this corner of northeast Charlotte.
Hoang says their different backgrounds drew neighbors together.
“Like, you don’t know what you’re doing, I don’t know what I’m doing, let’s help each other out, kind of thing. Even though we don’t speak the same language, but we’ll try our best, right?” Hoang said.
New neighborhoods have sprouted nearby over the past couple of decades. Cesar Cruz lives in one around the corner from Joseph’s farm. The subdivision backs up to an abandoned barn. Cruz is originally from Honduras and has lived in Charlotte for many years. His neighbor’s farm reminds him of a disappearing rural life in this city.
“You just hear that rooster right now. You don’t hear it no more around the city … So for me, if I had to pick, for me, I pick — let [the water buffalo] stay here,” Cruz said.
Fallout from the escape of the water buffaloes
The water buffaloes couldn’t stay. The city deems them exotic animals. Joseph had to pay a $225 fine and sell the remaining two right away. When a 900-pound bull escaped from a west Charlotte farm last week, Joseph had a bunch of friends asking if it was his. But the incident hasn’t put him off water buffaloes.
He shows off some pictures from a text exchange.
“Look how huge that animal is. They want to sell five of them,” Joseph said.
It turns out water buffalo producers across the country saw his story and are now getting in touch.
“I didn’t know that this is illegal here, exotic animals. After the incident, I learned that. I cannot bring [them] here, but if somebody wants to buy a buffalo, they can contact me. I have the source to get it,” Joseph said with a laugh.
So he’ll be a water buffalo middleman. As for his farm, Joseph says his property is under contract by a developer who wants to build townhomes. He and his wife just bought one-third of an acre in South Park.
They’ll sell their animals and move there.