It was breaking news in New York City. News helicopters thrummed overhead, the police were called in for backup, and a crowd of rubberneckers peered through the chain-link fence at the edge of the Prospect Park soccer field. Over 3,400 viewers watched a livestream online as police exited their vehicles and walked onto the grass, nets in hand, hoping to subdue the escapee: a young chocolate-colored steer with oversize tan ears that stuck straight out from its head, like a disguise that didn’t fit right.
The Brahman steer—one of the most common cattle breeds used in meat processing—had been on the lam since the morning, when it likely escaped from one of South Brooklyn’s live slaughter markets. These aren’t the assembly-line slaughterhouses of factory farming, but rather small establishments where customers can walk up to pens of live chickens, goats, rabbits, and other animals, point to the one they want, and have it killed on the premises. Often such live markets serve immigrant communities used to eating their meat when it’s still fresh, or religious communities who want to ensure their meat was prepared kosher or halal. Apparently, the Prospect Park steer didn’t want to linger long at a place like that.
First, the steer took a breakneck tour of Flatbush and South Park Slope. As early as 8:30 a.m., Twitter lit up with people reporting sightings of the steer as it charged down the sidewalk. “I thought there was nothing new to be seen after a lifetime in NYC,” one woman wrote. Eventually, the little steer got itself into the park, and it was there that the news cameras, and the NYPD, caught up with it. The police tried to use the soccer nets to corral the animal, tipping them over and awkwardly maneuvering the enormous nets around the field. But the steer slipped out of their grasp. This went on for hours.
Watching the footage, it was impossible not to root for an animal who seemed to be enjoying how much effort the NYPD was putting into recapturing it—and how easy it was for the cow to elude them. Eventually, the police trapped it in the dugout, between a fence and a police vehicle. In the blurry video, one can see the steer moo forlornly, like it knows the end is near. An officer takes a shot with a tranquilizer dart and the steer stumbles, then struggles to its feet in an attempt to leap over the police cars to freedom. It doesn’t make it. On the livestream, viewers never got the chance to see the police catch the animal: when the officials came in close, their lassos swinging, the steer’s fate clear, the camera zoomed out, then panned over to New York Harbor and lingered on the Statue of Liberty.
It was the perfect coda to the bovine saga. This was a steer destined to become hamburger that didn’t just yearn for freedom; it took the opportunity to get it for itself. The steer was eventually taken in by Skylands Animal Sanctuary in Wantage, New Jersey—which houses farm animals such as cows, sheep, goats, and pigs who fall off transport trucks or otherwise escaped—and given the name Shankar, which means “one who brings about happiness or prosperity” in Hindu. Thanks to its burst of spirit, Shankar somehow earned the right to avoid the fate of the 32 million of its peers killed in the United States each year for food. For some reason, even people who are proud carnivores feel troubled by the idea of one of these freedom-grabbing animals being sent to slaughter. Whether cow, chicken, goat, or sheep, the moral compass of society seems to have settled on an unofficial policy that escaped animals should be allowed to live. Two years ago, members of the NYPD even paid a slaughterhouse owner $40 so an escaped goat wouldn’t wind up on someone’s dinner table. As the sergeant who rescued the goat explained, “He deserved his freedom.”
Bestowing “freedom” upon an animal has become an act enshrined at the highest level of civic duty. In 1863, Abraham Lincoln’s Christmas turkey was freed after Lincoln’s son, Tad, “interceded on behalf of its life,” as White House reporter Noah Brooks wrote a few years later. Turkeys were given presidential reprieves sporadically until Ronald Reagan made it into a cherished Thanksgiving tradition, complete with a televised address that’s often a stew of dad jokes and bad puns. Unlike daring farm escapees who have the public clamoring for their release, these pardoned toms have done little to deserve their freedom. After they meet the president, they fade into obscurity for the remainder of their short lives—which often last less than a year, thanks to generations of breeding that have made them meatier at the expense of frail organs.
But does animal freedom need to be deserved? Or is “freedom” something only humans can bestow, an ethical order imposed on the chaos of keeping animals in our daily lives? Animals escape from zoos, farms, laboratories, and even odder locales, such as nativity scenes or assisted-living facilities, all the time. For a species that loves to see other animals enclosed and domesticated, why do we love it even more when they run away from us?
When two llamas went on the lam from the Carillons retirement community in Sun City, Arizona, on February 26, 2015, they became a media sensation. Every move the pair made was tracked on video and immortalized in image-laden tweets (#LlamaWatch, #TeamLlama), as the llamas galloped through parking lots and side streets. At one point, there were 3,084 tweets per minute about the llamas’ big day out. In lieu of paying attention to the day’s other stories—including evidence of a “supermassive black hole dating to cosmic dawn,” and a report that Donald Trump was “more serious than ever about pursuing a run for the White House in 2016”—the news cycle became a llamarama. Once recaptured, the runaway llamas were returned home, as escaped animals usually are, with the entire adventure written off by the media as a haphazard metaphor for living your best life. Nothing ventured, nothing gained.
The more difficult, lengthy, or wild an animal’s escape is, the more outcry there is from people who want to see the creature go free.
Animals that escape from zoos or labs are considered to have the extra charm of cleverness; prisoners who can beat the system. In the summer of 1985, an orangutan named Ken Allen escaped his exhibit at the San Diego Zoo multiple times, using the opportunity to ogle the other animals in the midst of a group of human tourists, shake hands and pose for photos with people, and throw rocks at another orangutan and former friend named Otis. Ken Allen was returned to his exhibit every time, never making it farther than the zoo grounds, as employees made futile attempts to keep him from escaping again. This past April, three ingenious baboons who escaped a Texas biomedical lab were sent back to be used in an untold form of testing that the lab assured the public was not “infectious-disease research.” The baboons had escaped by taking the 55-gallon barrels provided as toys for “enrichment” and moving them into “a strategic position in proximity to the wall,” as one of the center’s veterinarians told local television station KSAT. (The barrels were removed from the enclosure.)
Unlike the public response to the Prospect Park steer, there are rarely outcries when lab animals escape, not even when monkeys find a way to use tree branches to catapult themselves over the tall electric fence that was containing them. Unlike farms, labs and zoos have animal-containment plans and teams ready to track any escaped animals. When animal-testing facilities are done with the animals, the creatures are either euthanized or given to rescues that specialize in caring for former lab inmates. It’s impossible to know what percentage makes it out alive.
But the sentiment that farm escapees should be allowed to go free is oddly universal. In April 2017 in St. Louis, six full-grown steers that eluded capture while running amok for hours on city streets were sent to an animal haven. Back in 1998, two pigs known as the Tamworth Two escaped from a slaughterhouse in England and remained on the run for a week before they were captured and sent to live at a local sanctuary. (They were so popular—the press named them Butch and Sundance, after the Western outlaws—that a family-friendly movie was even made about their story.) In January of this year, a red Limousin beef cow in Poland became something of a celebrity after it avoided capture for weeks, swimming between small islands to elude capture. As a reward for its struggle, it was sent to the farm of a local governor to live out its days, but died during transport.
Animal Control and the NYPD don’t keep official numbers of escapees, but one Animal Care Center representative estimates that there are up to 50 calls about loose chickens every year. The threat level can escalate quickly: a chicken wandering down the road is the setup for a joke; a liberated cow careening down the street is a public-safety risk; an escaped lion is a state emergency. In 2011, residents of Zanesville, Ohio, began calling 911 reporting strange sightings. A black bear spooking the horses was one thing, but an African lion calmly lying across a small fence clearly didn’t belong anywhere in the Midwest. Then there were the Bengal tigers, the wolves, the grizzly bear. Terry Thompson, the owner of the exotic animals, had freed his “pets,” spread pieces of raw chicken around him, then shot himself in the head, in hopes that the animals would consume his body. Aside from some drag marks on his arm and signs of light chewing, the animals hardly touched Thompson. In all, more than 50 animals had been let loose. Of those, only six would survive: three leopards, two macaques, and one small grizzly bear, all of which had been left in their cages. All of the other animals, most of them carnivorous exotics like tigers and lions and bears, were killed by police. The return to the natural order—where humans were at the bottom of the food chain—aligned animal freedom with needless death and destruction.
As long as we’ve been trying to capture animals both wild and domesticated, they’ve been attempting to escape us. Trial by ordeal was an ancient practice that required people to do dangerous or life-threatening tasks in order to prove their innocence. Whether people were thrown, fully bound, into lakes, burned with hot irons or scalding water, left to stand on a flaming pyre, or even poisoned, the idea within most cultures that sanctioned such trials was that a higher power would step in and protect the innocent. Clearly the idea that someone who escapes from trauma should be spared is still with us, because the more difficult, lengthy, or wild an animal’s escape is, the more outcry there is from people who want to see the creature go free. These aren’t just any animals, we tell ourselves; they’re braver, more intelligent, and more worthy, and therefore it is our duty to save them.
Until recently, spirited animals were more often seen as beasts whose rebelliousness had to be stomped out and punished, not rewarded with freedom. In 1927, the New York Times described 19 escaped steers as “terrorizing those on the street,” and deemed one, who ended up being shot multiple times, as having made “a menacing charge.” (Most of them were returned to their owners to “become beefsteaks after all,” the article concluded.) In The Longhorns, a 1941 book about Texas ranchers, Frank Dobie wrote of so-called outlaw animals whose eyelids were sometimes sewn shut “so they would blindly follow other cattle.” Despite their treatment by their masters, Dobie praised and romanticized the troublesome bovines for refusing to be “dumb, driven cattle,” and likened their fight for life to the “give-me-liberty-or-give-me-death law against tyranny.”
“I’m not going to slaughter the cow. The gods are willing to give it a new life. I will leave it.”
In the last century or so, our cultural perception of animals has changed. Dogs and cats are no longer working animals or even pets, but rather cherished members of the family. The knowledge that most animals destined to become meat aren’t raised in bucolic pastures and are, instead, stuffed into facilities known as factory farms has created a measure of discomfort (if not vegetarianism) for the general population. What’s more, until a few decades ago there was no such thing as a sanctuary for farm animals. Even if a few feeling souls had wanted to celebrate an animal’s resourcefulness in freeing itself, there was nowhere for it to quickly and easily be re-homed.
Farm Sanctuary, the first shelter of its kind in the country, opened in 1986 in Watkins Glen, New York with the express purpose of providing permanent homes for farm animals. Employees and volunteers take what comes their way: animals relinquished by owners or rescued from abuse or neglect cases, or unwanted creatures that didn’t sell at auction that owners are happy to have taken off their hands. “I think for generations kindhearted people have tried to help individual animals from time to time,” says Gene Baur, Farm Sanctuary’s founder. However, “the farm-sanctuary movement helped normalize this idea that animals … that want to live should be allowed to live.” There are now hundreds of farm sanctuaries across the US and the world.
Many of these animals are in the right place at the right time, as if fate has decided they aren’t meant for the dining table: a gate or cage is left unlocked, a transport truck tips over, or an employee just isn’t paying enough attention to his or her charges. In 2012, a German cow escaped slaughter by leaping over two barbed-wire fences and a hedge, finally landing in an ice-filled swimming pool. It took six people to pull her out of the water, and involved the assistance of her owner and his tractor. Ultimately, the farmer was convinced to release her to a sanctuary when one activist told him that surviving the ordeal of her escape was, in itself, a reason to let her live.
Most people who work with animals would tell you that the escapees don’t desire life more than the kin they leave behind do. But gifting escaped animals with special qualities allows us to proceed with the mental Olympics that make it okay to spare one creature while condemning the rest. “They can celebrate the one that makes a run for it and feel good about themselves … without thinking about all the others,” Baur explains.
Even so, it’s an ongoing challenge for sanctuaries to make people connect the animal they were so invested in saving to the millions of others just like it. As PETA campaigner Amber Canavan explains, the organization frequently puts up billboards near the sites of transport-truck crashes that have received media attention. They say things like, “I am me, not meat. See the individual.” Canavan says, adding: “Most people in America do care about farmed animals. They just don’t make the connection.” The invisibility of the animals that we raise for food in the United States seems to be a feature, not a bug, of how we relate (or don’t relate) to them. Even in New York City, people can live in apartments for years without noticing that there’s a live market just a few blocks away.
In 2000, a brown-and-white cow named Queenie made a heavily publicized escape from Astoria Live Poultry after some children left a door open. If she wasn’t the first escaped animal to be given to a farm-animal sanctuary, she was the first heavily publicized one in New York. Animal Control and the slaughterhouse were inundated with calls from citizens, begging them to spare Queenie’s life. Ultimately, the live market’s owner was convinced to relinquish the cow to a sanctuary, despite the fact that she cost $500 (in addition to a $1,000 fine for causing an “animal nuisance”). “I’m not going to slaughter it,” the owner, Aladdin El-sayed, told the New York Daily News. “The gods are willing to give it a new life. I will leave it.”
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