Six steers escaped a small slaughterhouse in St. Louis last week, promptly setting off a media spectacle with familiar elements: news choppers, cheering bystanders, an hours-long police roundup, celebrity involvement and grass-root campaigns to spring the animals from death row.

Less visible in this very public saga were the dueling visions among animal advocates about just how to win the cattle’s freedom.

Within a few days, the owner handed the animals over to rescuers — for a price. Gentle Barn, a farm animal sanctuary with locations in Tennessee and California, bought the bovines, saying it used most of the $17,000 raised by a Chicago man’s GoFundMe campaign to pay the slaughterhouse the market value. But that came after Farm Sanctuary — a celebrity-backed refuge where the protagonists of similar livestock escapes have ended up — pulled out, saying it never pays to liberate animals, even from certain death.

The saga of the steers highlights a debate that touches all sectors of animal rescue. Many advocates argue that paying to retrieve animals from situations they believe are cruel is akin to paying hostage-takers: It only fuels the industry they oppose, they say. But some contend that saving lives is worth it, even if it comes at a cost.

“Are there 10,000 other cows that needed to be saved that day? Of course there are,” said Jay Weiner, the co-founder of Gentle Barn. “Did those 10,000 cows cross our path that day? No. We’re doing it because we can.”

The cattle caper began Thursday afternoon at Star Packing plant, a halal and kosher slaughterhouse where, owner Omar Hamdan told a local television station, an employee had left a gate open. All six steers in the establishment’s custody made a break for it, trotting through the streets of north St. Louis and evading the police cruisers that attempted to herd them. After some were corralled on the lawn of a Catholic nursing home, one busted through a metal fence and ran for another mile. Witnesses told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch that they’d dubbed him “Chico Suave,” because he was “smooth.”

“He’s going to go down in history. Let him stay alive!” a man who identified himself as T. told the newspaper. “He earned his stripes!”

Watching this unfold online from Chicago, Adam Brewer, a 27-year-old who said he has volunteered for animal causes, decided to start a GoFundMe drive to benefit a sanctuary that would take in the steers. Meanwhile, Weiner said, former St. Louis hockey star David Backes and his wife — both animal advocates — reached out to Gentle Barn to ask if it could help.

Hamdan, standing by as authorities tried to contain the cattle, told the Post-Dispatch: “If anyone wants to buy them, that’s fine.”

On Friday, the steers were back in Star’s custody, but donations to Brewer’s campaign were rising, and he had begun coordinating with a small group of supporters to help spread the word and try to find a sanctuary for the animals. A couple of days passed — with no small amount of confusion, in part because a St. Louis radio personality had started her own campaign to save only Chico, and in part because Hamdan’s stance was unclear.

“To all these people worrying about 6 cattles freedom they need to worry about all the kids in Syria getting killed,” Hamdan wrote on Facebook on Sunday. He added: “God created them for you guys to eat steaks and hamburger.”

That same day, Brewer said, he and his fellow organizers had secured a temporary foster home for the steers, and Gentle Barn had agreed to find them a permanent home. Brewer said he was soon in touch with Hamdan, who, he said, wanted all six to remain together but indicated a business partner would not allow them to be given away.

Hamdan did not respond to requests from The Washington Post for comment. But on Monday, he posted a video of Weiner signing documents to take the steers. A second video showed the animals being transported, and a third showed them at their temporary home. Their captions bore a marked change of tone. The cattle “are free and sorry for all the problems they are in a better home,” Hamdan wrote. “Please support gentle barn, because I’m one of [its] supporters from now and on.”

Many commenters on those posts praised Hamdan as a hero. But some accused Hamdan — whose plant was cited last year by the U.S. Department of Agriculture for the inhumane slaughter of a lamb — as being callous and profit-driven.

Susie Coston, Farm Sanctuary’s national shelter director, said she is relieved that the steers won a reprieve. But she said her organization wouldn’t have been the saviors in this case. Coston said she frequently obtains sick and injured animals for free at stockyards. Farm Sanctuary is also home to Frank, a bull that escaped in New York City last year and was handed over by his owners for no cost. The money used to buy the St. Louis cattle could feed a small sanctuary’s cows for months, she said; instead, it probably will be used by the packing plant’s owners to buy other cows for slaughter.

“It would be no different than saying ‘I rescued a puppy at the pet store because he was in bad shape.’ That’s not rescuing. It’s buying,” she said. “If we’re purchasing them, we’re saying they are a commodity.”

The COO of the Humane Society of the United States, Michael Markarian, echoed that, saying in an email that payment “puts money in the pockets of the abusers and doesn’t stop the cycle of more animals being caught up in those enterprises.”

This question is also debated among dog rescuers, some of whom purchase pooches at auctions where breeders sell animals they no longer have use for. That has created a situation where some are “brought to auctions with the sole purpose of being sold to rescues,” animal activist Aubrie Kavanaugh wrote last year in a post on her blog, Paws4Change.

Weiner acknowledged that Star Packing might use the compensation, whose exact amount he did not disclose, to buy more cattle. But that would have happened anyway, he said, “and then they would have been dead.” Now the steers will serve as ambassadors in Gentle Barn’s programs, Weiner said, and he is hoping the six might be the first residents of the sanctuary’s third location — perhaps in the St. Louis area.

Brewer, a St. Louis native who wants to go into law enforcement, said he and fellow organizers had no qualms about the transaction because it became clear that there was no choice. Unlike a hostage-taker, Hamdan had every legal right to kill the animals, Brewer said.

“It all comes down to leverage … this is still a legal business,” Brewer said. “And I believe that 100 percent of the time, once you do exhaust those options, the life in question is more important than the overall message that you’re trying to send.”

Brewer added that he thinks the drama changed Hamdan, whom he described as a friend.

“I think this is an event that was life-altering for Omar as well,” he said, adding that he thinks Hamdan “already sensed these issues before people started forcing their beliefs on him.”

This could not be confirmed. But one thing is for certain: The events were life-altering for Chico and his runaway herd.

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