In rare cases, an animal can survive a lightning strike, like a bison struck in 2013 at the Neal Smith National Wildlife Refuge near Prairie City. This bison earned his new nickname, “Sparky,” the hard way.
Karen Viste-Sparkman, a U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service wildlife biologist, was first to notice Sparky’s injury.
“I noticed the wound from a distance and thought he’d been gored while fighting other bulls” during mating season, she says. After a closer look at his hump and leg, she realized it was a burn. “It was so bad and he was so thin I didn’t think he was going to make it.”
Viste-Sparkman knew what caused the burn as she’d seen a refuge elk with a more extensive burn a few years earlier. After that animal died, a necropsy at Iowa State determined the cause to be lightning.
Fortunately for 11-year-old Sparky, his injuries weren’t as severe. While the wound is healing slowly, he seems to be getting around the refuge well.
UPDATE: Sparky is still going strong more than 4 years after the lightning strike! He may have been attracting some attention from someone other than refuge visitors, though. A female bison was spotted hanging out with him for a day or so, but refuge biologists don't know if this means romance is in the air. Sparky did father three calves before the lightning strike (one went to Carroll County Conservation), but it's unlikely he'll father any more since it's difficult for him to walk. He tends to spend time with his family group, some alone, and some with other bulls - that's all pretty typical.
For the rest of the story on Sparky, lightning facts and lightning safety tips, check out the July/August 2016 issue of Iowa Outdoors magazine.