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Why Does Fermilab Have Bison? Supposedly Science, But Probably Just for Fun

Maybe Robert R. Wilson, the guy who set up Fermi Lab, thought he’d bring people in with the charismatic megafauna and they’d stay for the high-energy physics. For reasons that are somewhat vague, he got the place a herd of bison, which still roam the 6,800 acre campus. Only a handful of bison herd live in Illinois, so I went to visit them on New Year’s Day.

Just show a driver’s license and you can visit FermiLab, which is like a quirky college campus with lots of big art and unusual buildings. About 15 bison interrupted their lunch when we approached, but got bored with us as soon as they realized we had no food. The huge double-fenced pastures can support about 70 animals (as long as they also get hay), but Fermilab keeps the herd at about 45 by selling off the bison. Mainly the males go to keep the population genetically fit. We were apparently pretty lucky to see them; a guy who was showing them to his daughter explained that they’ve been inside a lot lately. They came empty-handed, too, which disappointed the bison so much that one charged at the fence.

Normally when you think of animals at a big lab, you don’t think of fun, but that’s all the bison are really here for. Founding director Wilson made the place shockingly inviting; with unusual buildings and big art, it looks like a quirky college campus. The official reason is something about connecting to the prairie heritage. Huh? I wish all those boring prairies I had to visit as an Illinois schoolkid had buffalo. Another explanation is that he thought international visitors would like to see some American animals. I think I know the real story: he just put them there because they’re fun to have around. Fermilab has some fun with their explanation:

The oft-told tale that they are Fermilab’s equivalent to the canary in the mineshaft, living Geiger counters to warn of radioactivity, is strictly fiction. The Fermilab site does not present a radiation hazard, and Fermilab buffalo do not glow in the dark.

Find bison herds near you
Go see more animals in the midwest

Bonus Species: Coyote run around Fermilab, too
bonus fermilab species: coyote
Icy Bison
icy bison
A baby bison hung out in the middle of the herd
cute baby bison

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