In a moment that warmed the Internet’s cold, cold heart last week, a Los Angeles television station claimed it had un-hoodied the man who ventured into the middle of a California wildfire to rescue a frantic rabbit — a save captured in a dramatic video that got all the feels as it rocketed around the Internet.
It was good while it lasted.
The story has taken a not-so-heartwarming turn: Another man in another red hoodie has come forward saying he’s the one who carried out the rabbit rescue — and he has the singed bunny to prove it.
So what was once a case of a human risking his life for the sake of a small, furry creature has become a case of — well, maybe just fraud.
Tuesday’s rescue was a bright spot amid the devastation caused by the Thomas Fire, which has scorched more than 150,000 acres, burned hundreds of buildings and been the source of endless orange-tinted tableaus of devastation.
Oscar Gonzales told Los Angeles NBC affiliate KNBC that he was driving through one of them last week. He was on his way home from work Tuesday when he and a buddy saw a rabbit frantically running along the side of Highway 1.
“I love animals, myself, and I just felt bad,” Gonzales told KNBC.
He says he decided to pull over to help. Someone else pulled out a camera and started recording the dramatic scene, its characters backlit by flames.
In the video, the man jumped up and down, trying to get the rabbit’s attention. But that might have just further scared the animal.
“I was screaming. I’m all, ‘What are you doing going toward the fire?’ ” Gonzales said, narrating the video.
“At first, he was afraid of me because I was yelling, but then it went in my arms. And I picked up the rabbit, and I ran on the other side, and I dropped him off there.”
And with that interview, Gonzales briefly became an Internet hero.
The rescuer’s new fans stormed the Interwebs, inundating social media with glad tidings and bunny emoji and making a case for the good Samaritan’s canonization.
But then, enter Caleb Wadnan.
On Saturday, he came forward and told the station he was the one in the video. His story was very similar: Driving along Highway 1, he saw flames and a terrified animal, then got out to help.
“I just ran after it,” he told the news station, detailing his rabbit rescue. “I had a lot of faith in me at the time being. And so I was just focused on the life at hand rather than the flames around me.”
The people at KNBC were better able to corroborate his story. For one, he was wearing the same outfit as the guy in the video — not just the red hoodie, but also the black athletic shorts.
He also presented photographic evidence of a singed bunny he dropped off at a vet’s office. HuffPost talked to the people at the Conejo Valley Veterinary Hospital, who said Wadnan brought in the burned bunny. (The female cottontail was recovering from burns and heat damage, and it was too soon to say when it would be fully healed.)
The competing claims sparked questions: Was Gonzales simply lying? Is it possible both men rescued rabbits on that day but only one was captured on film? Did KNBC try to verify Gonzales’s claims before beaming them out to the world? Are there more adorable photos of a recuperating bunny wrapped in a blanket?
NBC appended its article with an editor’s note and said its staff had used some high-tech wizardry to try to discern the real savior:
On Saturday, NBC4 found reason to believe that Oscar Gonzales was not the man in the video as he claimed and followed up him with him and his girlfriend. The couple still insists he was the one seen in the video, but after using an enhanced image NBC4 has concluded the actual man in the video was Caleb Wadnan.
Of course, whether the rabbit rescuer’s actions were right had already been scrutinized by the unblinking eye of people on the Internet, with many saying scooping up the bunny was wrong to begin with.
Rabbits and their rabbitlike forebears (forehares?) have been running away from forest fires for millions of years. They’re just as skilled at getting out of danger as humans are — and some can weather forest fires simply by staying in their burrows. So did the actions of whoever was in the video actually save the rabbit?
Others went further down the rabbit hole. Maybe the rabbit wasn’t running from the fire but toward a litter of defenseless bunnies. LiveScience opined as much in what is perhaps the most buzz-killing headline stemming from the save: “Did The Wildfire Rabbit ‘Rescuer’ Doom A Litter of Babies?”
And by getting out of his car and running toward the flames, the rescuer put himself — and others — in harm’s way.
He could have also endangered fire crews, who would not have waded into the flames for a rabbit but would have put themselves at risk to rescue a man.
Most wildlife experts advise people to leave wild animals alone in these situations. Human intervention, they say, merely puts a kink in the circle of life.
What all those armchair quarterbacks didn’t know at the time was that there was not simply one ethical dilemma evident in this story, but two.
And the most recent one is not going away. Both men know there’s another guy claiming to be the hero from the video. Both are sticking to their stories.