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Great Animal Escape Stories - And What They Mean To  Us

Image adapted from original by Sondreaasan“Cow escapes on way to slaughterhouse, smashes through metal fence, breaks arm of man trying to catch her then swims to safety on island in lake.” This title introduced The Independent’s readers to the heroic story of a Polish cow that changed her destiny and found freedom on a land in the middle of a lake.

Besides, she won the hearts of hundreds of people, which prevented her owner from capturing her and sending her back to the slaughterhouse.

Animal escape stories are extremely popular among the public and provide precious content for news coverage. Animals as a topic are generally in favour with journalists as they balance hard news and attract more readers. Thanks to their accessible and entertaining form, they are highly profitable for the media. But why are we so enchanted with stories of farm animal escapes in an age where meat consumption is growing constantly and petrifying methods of factory farming account for 99% of the world’s meat production?

Jonathan Safran Foer in his book Eating Animals raises this question when he quotes a blog entry written by a meat distributor: “I am perfectly comfortable eating meat, yet there is part of me that wants to hear of a pig that made it out and maybe even settled down in the forest to start a colony of free feral pigs.” So what is it about these escape stories? Do they have anything in common? First, let’s take a look at some of them.

A Swim Away

Following up the story from the introduction, the Polish cow who escaped the abattoir in February was portrayed as brave and strong - even gaining the nickname ‘Hero Cow’. The Polish public admired her fight and pressured the farmer to give her her freedom. Keeping in mind that only in the UK, almost 300 cows are killed every hour, these words of admiration coming from a local politician sound almost ridiculous - “if all citizens could show such determination as this cow then Poland would be a much more prosperous country. I am not a vegetarian, but fortitude and the will to fight for this cow's life is invaluable,” said Pawel Kukiz to the media. The ‘Hero Cow’ didn’t enjoy the island life for too long as she died when rescuers attempted to move her to a sanctuary. She was probably too stressed about being caught again and passed away during the rescue mission. The Washington Post journalist Avi Selk captured the whole event in a heart-breaking story, which he concluded with the touching words “her life on the island was hard, and brief. But at least she lived free, to the end”.

A Wild Rebel

This true story also comes from Poland. Whilst wandering in Bialowieza National Park, ornithologist Adam Zbyryt spotted an extraordinary member of a bison herd. It was smaller with much brighter hair. It turned out not to be a bison at all, but a cow who had escaped from a farm in October 2017 and spent half a year in the forest. Her actions question the artificially created category of ‘domesticated’ animals as they prove that even farm raised beings are able to survive in and even crave the wilderness. The media pointed out the heroic act of the bison herd that saved the cow from a pack of wolves and the unusualness of the inter-species friendship. However, they also highlighted scientific concerns that the cow could eventually breed with the bison which would contaminate their precious endangered genes. But who drove the species nearly to extinction?

The Legend of the Tamworth Two

This story is probably familiar to you. In January 1998, two pigs ran away from an abattoir to the countryside while crossing the River Avon. These pigs got names - Butch and Sundance - and became a newsbeat. The two animals that were previously destined to become somebody’s dinner, transformed into memes, soft toys and even the BBC movie The Legend of the Tamworth Two. Due to the public pressure, they were saved and spent the rest of their lives in a sanctuary.

50 is not a Heroic Number

In comparison, one story you might not have heard of: in October last year, a herd of 50 cows was deliberately set free. This wasn’t framed as a heroic act but “a prank”. The cows weren’t presented as individuals but as interchangeable animals that caused damage to the nearby village. The local people “helped” by capturing them to stop the catastrophe, and restored balance after the incident by kindly returning them to their field.

Wikimedia Commons | Richard CrofFrom an Object to a Hero

So what is the moral of these stories? Media representation of a hero requires an individual and likeable animal whose escape resembles epic stories from human history and culture (e.g. Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid). Claire Molloy, who discusses this topic in her book Popular Media and Animals, believes that one of the reasons why heart-breaking escape stories don’t challenge the current status quo is the entertaining form of soft news that doesn’t question our lifestyle. And she’s right - none of these stories mention the scary practices of factory farming, the dangerous effects of meat overconsumption or the impacts on the environment.

However, Molloy also points out that it’s the context in which the animal is portrayed that influences our perception. An individual being that can cause almost no harm in her escape to a deserted island is much more likely to be presented in a positive narrative than a herd of 50 cows destroying private property in a populated village.

Flickr | Rockin'Rita We could never eat an individual, but a piece of steak coming from an anonymous mass meant for human consumption is something different. Some extraordinary heroic acts resembling human behaviour catch our hearts but otherwise, the purpose of cattle on this world is to feed us, right? The death of the strong, moral-worthy ‘Hero Cow’ has the power to move us to tears and is therefore very inconvenient. That’s why we need the less upsetting discourse of farm animals as commodities and components of the meat industry. The existence of two different images allows us to get moved by the escape story whilst still enjoying our lunch.

If you are interested in more animal escape stories, check out the book by Barbara G. Cox called Great Animal Escape Stories: True Adventures of Farm Animals. Further exciting thoughts about animal representation and discourses are to be found in the collection of essays by Matthew Chrulew and Dinesh Joseph Wadiwel called Foucault and Animals.

We wonder if this rooster escaped from somewhere too?!

By Eliška Olšáková - Online Journalism Intern

Frontier runs conservation, developmentteaching and adventure travel projects in over 50 countries worldwide - so join us and explore the world!

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A Swim Away