A 780-pound steer headed for slaughter in West Baltimore seized a chance at freedom Friday, leaping a barbed-wire fence and taking a brisk two-mile walk along North Avenue that ended when the animal was gunned down by police in Mid-Town Belvedere.
The steer was first spotted about 10:15 a.m. after escaping from the George G. Ruppersberger & Sons Inc. slaughterhouse in the 2600 block of Pennsylvania Ave., according to police. It was shot less than an hour later.
Scores of people took pictures of the felled animal at North Charles and Preston Street, and the incident became fodder for social media, which lit up with pictures, Internet memes ("Cow Ripken") and fake Twitter accounts posting the supposed musings of the steer.
But witnesses also raised serious questions about the appropriateness of police opening fire on the animal with people nearby.
Ellie Beziat said the animal was trotting 15 feet from her and her boyfriend when she saw an officer lean out of a moving cruiser and fire shots at its head. She said there were about 10 other pedestrians in the street.
"I don't know whether the [animal] needed to be shot, but I do know you shouldn't be firing out of a moving police car with pedestrians standing there," Beziat said.
Police said the steer had become "increasingly aggressive" and officers were unable to contain it. "We have to take into account the safety of the surroundings of everybody," Sgt. Sarah Connolly, a police spokeswoman, said of the decision to shoot the steer.
The department has assigned its Force Investigation Team, which investigates police-involved shootings and other serious uses of force, to the case.
The Ruppersberger plant has been open since 1966, and it was the only slaughterhouse in the city until the company recently opened up a larger plant in Southwest Baltimore, according to an article on AmericanFarm.com.
William Whitfield, wearing a blood-smeared T-shirt, said he was working at Ruppersberger & Sons at the time of the escape. The slaughterhouse had received 20 steers, 10 cows and one bull that morning, he said.
Two steers got loose, but only one was able to jump a fence.
"He hit Woodbrook [Street], then Francis Street, and head on out," Whitfield said. "He got full speed."
Reached by phone, a company official declined to comment.
The incident snarled traffic, and people flocked to the area. One officer, a late arrival to the scene, was overheard saying to a fellow officer, "I thought you meant a pit bull!" when he saw the animal.
Robert Queen, a 22-year-old designer, was driving onto North Avenue from Druid Hill Avenue when he saw the animal trot by. At first he thought it was a horse that had gotten loose, perhaps from the stall of an a-rabber, the produce salesmen who use horse-drawn carts.
He pulled out his cellphone and started recording as the steer strolled along the median, past a lake trout carryout and liquor store.
In the video, a man standing alone on the corner can be seen wheeling around in disbelief. Queen's caption for the video read simply: "He out."
Police said they first started tracking the steer on North Avenue, and four police cars tried to hem it in near Eutaw Street, but the animal would not be held back, Baltimore police spokesman Lt. Eric Kowalczyk said.
"It vaulted over the hood of a car," he said.
Kowalczyk said police had almost corralled the steer near Meyerhoff Symphony Hall, but it escaped again and ran into a nearby parking garage. Police called in the large Emergency Vehicle Unit command truck, a mobile command station often used during barricade situations, to block the entrance of the parking garage and try to seal in the steer.