We are all Meteor: Pondering our emotional connection to animals

The yak: big, hairy, and horned—but “cute.” The yak: big, hairy, and horned—but “cute.”

On October 22, The Washington Post published a 2,000-word story about Meteor the yak. The piece was essentially a deep-dive obituary of the sort usually reserved for movie stars, war heroes, and pioneers in the arts, science, and industry. I would call it overkill, because I can’t resist a pun. But that’s not exactly how I feel about the detailed death notice.

I am what is sometimes called an “animal person.” I have an affinity for all things furry and four-legged, feathered and beaked, and even creepy and crawly, with the notable exception of stink bugs. I hate stink bugs. But I loved Meteor—or rather, I loved his story and what he symbolized. He was defiant, heroic, crafty, and even cute, if that word can be applied to a shaggy 600-pound beast with great big horns.

The condensed version of Meteor’s life and death goes something like this: He lived and grazed at Buckingham County’s Nature’s Bridge Farm, owned by one Robert Cissell. On September 10, while being trailered to the abattoir, Meteor escaped when Cissell stopped at an intersection. During the 17 days that the animal roamed free—a “yak on the lam,” as C-VILLE Weekly reported—he was spotted a few times and photographed at least once. The somewhat blurry image, taken from a distance, brought to mind a Bigfoot sighting. But this yak was no yeti. Meteor’s existence was verifiable, and the media was quick to lionize him (remember, the puns). If he were a human, he would have been a budding folk hero, refusing to accept his inevitable fate—to be carved up and sold at the Charlottesville City Market, which is what Cissell does with Meteor’s pasture buddies. Instead, the yak enjoyed more than 15 days of fame, making local and national headlines, inspiring a blog, and becoming a favorite topic of conversation among cubicle-dwelling human workers. Meteor had escaped, “fleeing into the Virginia mountains,” as USA Today declared.

Back in the Stone Age, when I was a cub reporter in Columbia, Missouri, I had written about livestock escapees, so I knew what all the hubbub was about. There was a slaughterhouse within the city limits—just a few blocks from my apartment, in fact—and jittery cattle jumped the stockade every now and then. One cop on the local police force gained some small degree of notoriety as the terminator in these situations. He used a 12-gauge shotgun loaded with a single-slug cartridge—from close range. I’ll never forget the front-page photo: a little cloud of smoke still hung in front of the muzzle, and the very large animal had begun to topple, two hooves on the ground and the others about a foot in the air.

This was no cause for celebration. The police said that killing the animal as quickly as possible—rather than, say, tranquilizing it and hauling it back to the meat factory—was a matter of public safety. There was an elementary school nearby, for heaven’s sake, and the certain death of a steer was preferable to the possible trampling of a playground full of kids. Back in the newsroom we talked about the inappropriateness of an old-time slaughterhouse in a modern city neighborhood, and we joked about the officer who apparently relished his role as a cattle killer. My overwhelming emotion, not disclosed to my colleagues, was sadness.

That’s what I felt when I heard the news about Meteor being hit by a car on Route 29, and euthanized, on the morning of September 27. I also had a wistful smile on my face as I took to C-VILLE Weekly’s Facebook page and wrote a brief eulogy for the yak. Later, when the WaPo story hit, I felt it was a bit much. Granted, there had been a story a few days earlier about a monkey on the loose in Charlottesville. No one ever found the little critter, and I suspect maybe someone only imagined seeing it before dialing 911. Regardless, it was news fodder. But the story about Meteor quickly veered into TMI territory, including a mention of “methods for obviating the smell of urine that comes with cooking [yak] kidneys.”

Among the more than 30 commenters, some bashed Cissell as “irresponsible” and blamed him for Meteor’s death (they missed the irony, I guess), while others commended Cissell for his lifestyle choice and commitment to sustainable farming. One person extolled the deliciousness of yak yogurt, and yet another declared yaks “cute.”

Scientifically speaking, that’s partly what it comes down to. Ethologist Konrad Lorenz (you know, the one with the line of ducks following him) used the term Kindchenschema to describe human infant features—a large head, round face, and big eyes—that we perceive as cute and which motivate caretaking behavior. Lorenz’s research is cited in studies that found people more likely to save a dog or a child than an adult from a life-threatening situation. Dogs and kids are cute. We innately want to protect them, to make sure they survive.

I would argue that this idea prevails even when a cute animal is perceived as a threat. On October 24, a bear rummaging through garbage at Brownsville Elementary School caused a lockdown. A photograph published by The Daily Progress shows the sweet-faced little creature clinging to the trunk of a pine tree—with its potentially flesh-shredding claws. Police and animal-control officers chased the bear away, and all was right with the world again. Principal Jason Crutchfield sent a message to the schoolkids’ parents, saying, “As always, safety is a priority at Brownsville, and we are glad that this was handled without incident. Your little bees stayed calm and cool, but, of course, are excited about today’s events.”

As Charlottesville grows, and development creeps into agricultural and natural areas, our encounters with animals other than our pets are increasing. That’s a fact. How we react to said animals says a lot about us, about our capacity to care about and even feel affection for “lesser” living things. At the very least, we should respect them. We are encroaching on their territory, not vice versa. If we accord hero status to Meteor, so be it. And may he rest in peace.

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