Over the past 14 years, John Graves has seen the final stages of Ralphie IV’s career and the entirety of Ralphie V’s run as the mascot for the University of Colorado.
Last fall, CU announced the retirement of Ralphie V, and on Thursday, Graves, the Ralphie program manager, announced that he is moving on, as well.
“It is time for me to depart,” said Graves, who, along with his wife, will focus attention on his own bison ranch, bison education and land preservation. “I cannot express how much I will miss working with the Ralphie handlers and caring for the buffalo every day.”
Graves’ assistant, Taylor Stratton, will take over as the Ralphie program manager, as the program embarks on a new era.
“I’ve never known the Ralphie program without John Graves,” said Stratton, who was a Ralphie handler as a CU student before graduating in December of 2013. “He coached me when I was a runner and I’ve been his assistant coach for the last four years. It’s definitely a bittersweet moment where I’m very excited and happy for John because he’s moving on to pursue his passion. I’m very excited about taking over but definitely, he will be missed.”
Graves began as a Ralphie handler and in April of 2010 he was promoted to the assistant director position. Gail Pederson was the program director for 17 years before leaving in 2015. Graves was promoted to director at that time.
Over the years, Graves has not only worked with Ralphies IV and V, but put hours of time into researching and documenting the history of the Ralphie program, which celebrated its 50th anniversary in 2017.
“Above all else, I am extremely proud that no matter what, I always did what all the buffalo wanted and needed, and put them first in all decisions,” Graves said. “I am very proud of the extraordinary care myself and the handlers gave to Ralphie every day.”
Over the next month, Graves said, he will work with Stratton in her transition to the position, which will become full-time for the first time at CU.
“(Being full-time) is desperately needed to ensure everything about the program is taken care of,” Graves said.
In addition to the past four years as an assistant, Stratton, a graduate of Cheyenne Mountain High School, has been working for the CU Alumni Association.
“I’m thrilled to be taking this position and joining athletics, but I will miss my team over here (with the Alumni Association),” she said.
Stratton takes over at a time when CU is in the process of finding Ralphie VI.
“It’s definitely going to be the primary focus for me,” she said. “We have identified a buffalo who we think will be a good fit, but as with every buffalo that has ever been a Ralphie, the decision on whether or not they want to become the next Ralphie is going to be completely up to her.”
For the past couple of months, the handlers have worked with a buffalo that was born last April.
“We’re just really focusing on taking training at a time that she wants and letting her set the pace with what she’s comfortable with,” Stratton said. “We look at a variety of things, a couple different characteristics. (Ralphie V) was very curious about everything that was going on around her … and she enjoyed interacting with humans. She was just a very confident, calm buffalo.
“With the multitude of tasks and situations that Ralphie is in, that’s absolutely things that we’re looking for. They’re curious, they’re calm in new situations and they’re more interested in what’s going on and figuring it out instead of an alternative.”
CU will not have a buffalo run at the spring football game next month. The hope is to have a buffalo ready for the next football season, but Stratton said, as always, the handlers will not push the animal too fast. CU’s home opener at Folsom Field is Sept. 12 against Fresno State.
“Training a buffalo definitely takes a significant amount of time and we’re absolutely going to just continue to move at her pace where the safety and the well being of the buffalo and her handlers are always going to be our No. 1 priority for the program,” she said. “If it takes some time and she needs a little bit more time than (being ready for the next football season), that’s something that we’re absolutely open to.”