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YAKKITY YAK: Gwenyfar’s obsession with national news story of escaped yak, Meteor, sheds greater light on human nature

A black yak named Meteor escaped a slaughterhouse and is on the lam. Stock photo

A black yak named Meteor escaped a slaughterhouse and is on the lam. Stock photo


Have you checked the daily update on Meteor?” Jock asked.

“Give me a second.” I pulled up “Meteor the yak” on Google and hit news.

“No, the last story was two days ago.” 

The headline read: “Escaped yak defies tranquilizer attempts, remains on the lam in Nelson County.”


We have become obsessed with this small news story out of Virginia. A yak named Meteor escaped during transport to the slaughterhouse. The reports vary in details between numerous news outlets—Washington Post, USA Today and cable news. Essentially, Robert Cissell stopped at a red light when he noticed the yak he was transporting in the trailer behind him walking away through traffic. Apparently, Meteor had kicked out the back door and dashed.

At around 300 pounds, Meteor is a fully grown yak and hard to miss. (Actually, pictures of him are beautiful.) Since, he has been at large in and around Nelson County, Virginia. He made an appearance at a bed-and-breakfast (smart yak) and at a Farm Bureau Insurance office. We have taken to checking the daily news updates on his unfolding story.

There are a lot of reasons I find it so fascinating. Partly, I love the way different people respond to it. As Jock points out, the story shifts when one finds out the creature headed to the slaughterhouse has a name. The farmer, Mr. Cissell, clearly is trying to manage a situation he never expected. As he pointed out repeatedly, to many people, it’s just a funny story, but to the Cissell family, it represents a serious financial blow. He began by asking folks to help him get Meteor back and seems surprised by the number of people who appear to be rooting for the yak rather than him.

“Yeah, but they still eat meat!” my friend Matt responded to the story. 

He has a valid point: If you are part of the system that benefits from the destruction of life, then cheering for someone escaping the system seems contradictory. Alas, humans are not creatures who tend to follow logical patterns or respond much in the way to introspection and self honesty—let alone actually allowing those things to alter behavior.

We like stories about the lone underdog who triumphs against the system in the face of incredible odds. It is why Meteor captures our attention. It is why people have offered him sanctuary. Still, he is either going to have to wander onto someone’s farm who wants to give him sanctuary or make it up into the mountains to live his life as a free yak. Thus far he has evaded capture and attempts from those who try and lure him back with treats.

Mr. Cissell would argue he is the lone underdog trying to be a responsible farmer in the face of factory farming. He raises specialized  animals, i.e. yaks, and says he tries to provide them with humane and caring conditions. Compared to the lives of chickens or hogs in the factory farms that feed into our national food supply, Cissell has a point. Pictures show him at the pasture fence, with a yak nuzzling his hand. It is sweet.

“They are calling Meteor a public safety concern,” I commented to Jock late last week. “I’m not sure how that works; we are not talking about a confirmed man-eating tiger here. He’s a yak. They’re herbivores. I mean, he might graze your roses, but he’s not going to take a bite out of you.”

“They’re setting us up for someone shooting him,” Jock commented. “This is PR. Of course he’s not dangerous.” 

He took a sip of beer. “I’m sure they think he’s a traffic hazard.”

“Jock, he has already demonstrated he has better traffic safety skills than most of the people who try to cross Front Street!”

“Gwenyfar, I am not the one who is arguing with you. I am convinced that Meteor is smarter than the average person.”

He put his beer down.

“I’m just saying, in this country, cars are more important than human life, let alone livestock. If you want to paint Meteor as a threat and a villain, that is one way to do it. Remember, ‘There is nothing so dangerous as smart sheep.’”

“OK, Graham Chapman.” I grinned at the  “Monty Python” reference.

The next day a story was released, complete with Cissell’s adorable young daughters framing family financial hardship. Subtext: These are the two little girls who are going to starve if they don’t get Meteor back.  The previous week Cissell had publicly announced, if he got Meteor back, he would not slaughter the yak but let him live out his days as breeding stock. I’m not sure claiming financial hardship because of not being able slaughter an animal and then promising not to slaughter the animal in the same breath makes either statement believable.

Here is the thing about the Meteor story: On the surface, it amuses us—a yak escapes certain death. It is actually a pretty remarkable lens to view how humans process and accept information. Meteor begins as the hero, the unexpected wunderkind who rises from obscurity to fight the death machine.  Though many people like the idea of his success, as Matt says, they wouldn’t change their actions or behavior over one yak. Though this particular yak’s story was enough to make international news.

Just to ask the question: How many stories of individual children in custody at the border have you read or watched? Has it altered how you go through your day at all? Have you been moved to write any elected officials to register your concerns about the matter?

As the novelty of Meteor starts to wear off (and he refuses interviews), the story starts to shift and be controlled by the humans—the ones who always control the story. The previously heroic Meteor starts to be painted as dangerous, as personally causing potential starvation of beautiful, helpless children, and he becomes tarnished. So if and when someone does succeed in capturing him or possibly shooting him, we will not be misguided and think Meteor is a martyr.

It is a frequently used device: to accuse the victim of perpetrating the crime. In a nutshell, it is exactly how our emotions are played with constantly. We cannot love the full humanness of anyone. We need and want our heroes to be perfect. No one is. Many of us also grow and change in our lives to become hopefully better people.

I live in the town of my youth. That means, during the course of my week, I routinely interact with people I have known for two or three decades. One of the hardest lessons of my adult life has been to let people grow and change. To stop interacting with someone based upon something that happened between us 15 years ago. Both my kindergarten teacher and my first serious boyfriend regularly shop at the bookstore. Neither of those relationships are the same as they were in 1985 or in 1995. Thank, heavens! It would be terribly awkward if they were. But both relationships did and have continued to teach me a lot about myself and how I respond to the world.  Your first break up is tough. You really want to vilify the person who mangled your heart so callously. In truth, he wasn’t a villain, and I wasn’t really a victim.

With Meteor the question is put pretty squarely and with blood: Is Meteor food or is he a victim? Is Mr. Cissell a hero for practicing humane farming techniques? Or is he a vicious, cold-blooded killer?

“Why don’t you offer Meteor sanctuary if you care so much?” another acquaintance asked at the same party.

“I would love to! I have been asking Jock for a yak for years!”  I burbled. “Besides the zoning issues, it is really hot here and yaks are cold mountain creatures.”

“Yeah, have you met Gwenyfar?” Jock butted in. “As soon as it got hot, there would be a yak in the house—because she would claim it needed air-conditioning. There would be a 300-pound yak sleeping in my bed!”

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