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.
But Kowalczyk said the animal leaped over the bumper of the truck and squeezed through an opening. "That was when we were left with the situation where the officer was forced to discharge," he said.
Witnesses said the steer appeared to be "bewildered" and "scared" right before the shooting.
Beziat said the steer was not charging or running fast, and appeared confused.
Adam Palmer was walking along Preston Street toward the Starbucks on North Charles Street near the University of Baltimore when he saw people ducking into stores and heard the sound of what he thought was firecrackers. He then saw the steer coming toward one-way traffic on Preston Street. "It was walking, kind of wandering," he said.
Palmer believes he heard three shots, followed by another three to five, then saw the animal collapse. Palmer said he was surprised that police opened fire.
"There's tons of people here all the time, with the college, it being the middle of the day, people going to coffee," Palmer said. "It's kinda scary."
Others said they didn't want to second-guess the officers. "It was running past pedestrians, running into traffic. A decision has to be made," said Eric Long, who had seen the steer near Pearlstone Park.
Kowalczyk said officers couldn't use a tranquilizer in the situation because department policy dictates that tranquilizers only be used once animals are "contained" and do not pose a threat to bystanders.
Moreover, police can't predict how an animal on the loose would react to sedatives, he said. The department is in the process of switching out its tranquilizer medication. The current drug used in the darts "was having an adverse reaction on animals," he said.
"We were never able to get containment, and the urgency and immediacy of the incident escalated where the officer had to discharge," Kowalczyk said.
The animal rights organization People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals condemned the incident.
"If an animal escapes from a slaughterhouse or slaughter truck, that animal should be granted amnesty," said PETA spokeswoman Lindsay Rajt. "PETA would have found him a home and made him an ambassador to other animals for his courage."
Jay Fulmer, a board member and former president of the Maryland Cattlemen's Association, said steers are generally docile but, like any animal, can panic in unfamiliar and stressful surroundings.
"It's unfortunate for the animal, and it's unfortunate for whoever the owner was, but I think they had to do what they had to do," Fulmer said.
Friday's steer escape was hardly the first in Baltimore.
In 2002, a steer escaped from the Ruppersberger plant, leading to a SWAT team response. That animal roamed around until he ran into a dead-end alley, where officers fired tranquilizer darts before putting him down with a shotgun.
Eastern District officers spent hours in 1977 corralling 16 head of cattle that escaped from the Charles J. Schmidt & Co. packing house on Harford Road. Reports at the time said the officers yelled "Yippee kay-aye!" and "Ride 'em cowboy!" Officers rounded up all the cattle except one, which was shot with a shotgun, with the consent of the vice president of the packing company.
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In 1969, police enlisted West Baltimore youth to round up 12 head of cattle that escaped from the Hi Grade Beef and Provision Company slaughterhouse. "A posse of policemen and a troop of teenagers rode out after the wayward shorthorns," an account at the time said.
And in 1896, a steer was "on his way toward the stockyards for the purpose of providing beef-steaks and roasts … when it occurred to him that he would have a little Christmas fun before visiting the butcher." Police "vainly attempted to lasso him" before "assassinating him with an axe," The Sun reported.
Baltimore Sun reporter Justin George contributed to this article.