News

The media’s goat

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Did you hear the one about how a “crowd hungry for photos” drove a poor mountain goat to its death in the sea offshore of Seward, Alaska?

Such a sad story.

Did you believe it?

Some of it is actually true. There was a goat, and it did end up dead. There was a woman in red trying to take photographs of the goat, too. There were also six or eight other people in the area.

The goat being  “harassed by a group of people who wanted to photograph it” as reported by the Washington Post?

That’s as true as the bogus story about a moose calf being born in a shopping center parking lot in Anchorage, according to Erin Kuester, an eyewitness to the tragic events in Seward along with her partner and her visiting parents.

What happened on Saturday evening, she said, is far more complicated than the neat and simple story told by the Post’s Ben Gaurino in far off Washington, D.C. and others around the country busily spinning a tragic tale about a goat herded to its death by photographers in Alaska.

Guarino picked the story up Tuesday morning from the  Alaska Dispatch News and the Seward City News, which had it first. Gaurino linked to the latter while conjuring the D.C. version of Seward, “an active fishing hub, the starting point of the historic Iditarod trail and a destination that draws tourists who have wandered south from Anchorage. The city has been visited by moose, porcupines and the odd bear.”

Actually, the moose and the bears, of which there are a fair number, live in and around Seward, and the tourists don’t exactly wander in. They intentionally make the 128 mile drive south from Anchorage to go fishing for halibut in the Gulf of Alaska, or take a wildlife and whale viewing cruise to Kenai Fiords National Park, or visit Exit Glacier.

But these are small points that can be excused by Gaurino’s need to pad his story with more information in what has become the new-media game of “telephone,” or “Chinese whispers” as it is otherwise known:

“A game in which a message is passed on, in a whisper, by each of a number of people, so that the final version of the message is often radically changed from the original.”

The game is now played electronically with the whispers moving silently through the tubes. The first whisper this time came in the form of a “dispatch” from an unnamed source with Alaska State Troopers.

Unnamed whisperers

The state agency said it had “received a report of individuals harassing a mountain goat on the south end of the Seward Harbor breakwater dike….(then) another report was received the mountain goat was now swimming in front of the SeaLife Center in the ocean. Investigation revealed a large amount of people followed the goat towards the SeaLife Center on the rocks resulting in the goat jumping back in to the water. The goat was unable to come back to the rocks due to the people standing on the rocks. The goat ended up drowning in the water.”

The gibberish about “a large amount of people” following the goat to the SeaLife Center (you can almost see a mob herding the animal through the Resurrection Bay-side city, can’t you?) was picked up by Dispatch reporter Chris Klint who translated it to say this:

“A mountain goat that entered Resurrection Bay in Seward and drowned Saturday was crowded into the water by people following it through the downtown area, troopers said,” which isn’t exactly what troopers said. They never mentioned downtown.

Neither did Troopers mention the goat being followed “by a group of people who wanted to photograph it,” even if the Post’s Guarino claimed that is what “the officers said in a news dispatch.”

What actually happened is that Gaurino and Clint and others grew the story to follow and improve upon the narrative started by Troopers with the “dispatch” revealing that some unknown source had reported a goat being harassed at the boat harbor near the north end of town.

With the goat dead near the south end of town, troopers added this:

“It is imperative  that wildlife is given adequate space to be able to leave a congested area like downtown Seward.”

That is good advice in general, but it is unclear if it would have made any difference in this case because of the odd circumstances in Seward.

SeaLife Center’s key role in death

What really happened, said Kuester said, a college-educated woman with plenty of woods savvy from working as an instructor for the National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS), was that a poor, confused goat following the rocky shore of Resurrection Bay ended up running into the SeaLife Center built atop a seawall jutting into the bay on the south edge of downtown Seward.

In trying to make its way around the facility, the goat somehow managed to slip through a small opening beneath a chain link fence and entered a trap.

It found itself boxed into a small area with chain link fence on one side, the SeaLife Center on another, a small SeaLife outbuilding on the third, and the steel bulkhead of the seawall rising behind.

“When I first saw him,” Kuester said. “He was just smashing against the greenery and the fence next to the SeaLife center. He really wanted to get out. He was really agitated. It was like a little corral there.”

Her father, a hunter and trapper form the Midwest, was a little confused by it all, she added. He thought this an odd way to pen an animal. It took the group a few minutes to recognize that the goat was a wild animal that had actually stumbled into a trap.

Others also thought at first the goat behind the chain link was in a pen, Kuester said.

“People kind of thought he was like part of the SeaLife Center,” she said. “So they were going to look. He was so visible.”

Kuester said there were six or eight people around the enclosure, a couple of whom did seem to want to get a closer look, and a “woman in red” taking photos.

“There were no official people out there,” she added; a couple of people eventually came out of the SeaLife Center to see what was going on “but that was after the goat jumped.

“It jumped over the iron retaining wall (the bulkhead on the sea wall). He could have fallen 15 feet, maybe more.”

The tide was out at the time. Kuester did not see where the goat landed, but she believes it fell to the rocks below. It could have died in the fall or broken a leg or legs, making it impossible to swim. Troopers said it drowned, but there was no necropsy done to determine the cause of death.

“We saw what happened, and moved down the beach.” Kuester said. “Quite shortly, I saw the body of the goat in the water.”

The carcass was fished out by the crew of a passing boat and then donated to charity.

Afterward, a story started spreading in Seward about how tourists drove the goat to its death.

“People love to hate the tourists,” said Kuester, and so the story grew.

The media used to be in the business of trying to check on the validity of these stories, but now it’s more active in spreading them. The story was still growing on Tuesday.

“Goat chased to its death by picture-takers in Alaska,” CNN, a late arrival to the media pack now chasing the goat, headlined that afternoon. 

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4 replies »

  1. Thanks for taking the time to write up your experience, Kerri. You did a great job describing the context of the day. I smiled more than once reading your account even though the outcome was grim. Evocative writing.

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  2. NOLS doesn’t make me angry. You do. While I’m very hesitant to get into a back and forth with you as I’ve seen how these things go, I guess I’m already there. I have received your emails with endless strings of questions and I will do my best to answer them for you. Before I begin, may I suggest that you check your sources before accusing reporters of fabricating story. That being said, here are my facts. I walked out of Chinook’s in downtown Seward around 6:00pm. Out of my peripheral vision I felt what I thought to be a dog bearing down from my right side. I heard very heavy and stressed breathing. When the “dog” passed at a rapid clip 6in in front of me, for a flash, I thought it was a domesticated goat. Noting its size, I realized that wasn’t the case. Its hooves on the pavement were loud and got the attention of many in the parking lot. I estimate 20 people were standing in that lot and between Chinook’s and the neighboring building. Lord knows how many cars were parked there. It was a maze just to get to my own car which was parked across the street. Once there, I drove in the direction the goat was running – toward the Sea Life Center. The next open place I could pull in was an RV park. I wanted to discern what was happening with this animal. It was from this vantage point, I saw the mountain goat at least 100yds into the bay and another 100 yards away was a sea otter. It was surreal. There were several people in the water up to their ankles and knees and several more heading in that direction. A woman’s off-leash spaniel ran to the water and was bouncing along the shore line barking at the goat. She was screaming at her husband who was ankle deep in the water to get their dog. I believe the dog’s name was Charlie. Maybe that was the husband’s name. Either way, both of them needed a leash at that point in my opinion. There was another black dog on the beach but it seemed unconcerned with the goat and wasn’t at the water’s edge. Along with the folks on the immediate shoreline, I estimate there were at least 30 more between there and the line of RVs in that one particular spot. On the small bluff of the RV park, there were at least 40 more taking photos and watching in disbelief, many yelling for their neighbors to look at the goat. It was a scene. Frankly, I can’t quite blame them. A goat swimming alongside a sea otter? I mean… “Honey, we can go home now, I got the shot.” From that vantage point, there were wall-to-wall motor homes as far as the eye could see from right to left, along with their tenants. And bless them. They were minding their own business, enjoying a picture perfect Alaska day. The goat was technically the uninvited guest. How did it come into Seward and why? Maybe someone out there knows, but I do not. Perhaps spooked by a bear. Perhaps it had health issues. In any case, when I saw that the goat was climbing out of the water, I got back in my car and drove to the RV park nearest the Sea Life Center with the plan to see if he was okay or in trouble if he came down the beach in that direction. At that RV park, there were many RVs but fewer people around and only a handful of people on the beach. Sure enough, he came around the curve of the rocky beach. At this point, I called the Sea Life Center and spoke to Margaret. I told her that the goat was approaching their sea wall at the water’s edge. You claim that the goat seems perfectly fine in Steve Fink’s still photograph you published. Sure. If you look at that frame, the goat looks majestic and relaxed. Mr. Fink got a nice shot, however, what I saw was very different. I saw an extremely stressed and exhausted animal. He was dragging down the beach. He had nothing left. I’m curious how long Mr. Fink watched the goat and if he reported to you that he seemed “fine”. I kinda doubt it. Aaaanyway, I asked Margaret if she could help me in contacting the correct person. She told me to call the Wildlife Conservation Center. The goat disappeared around another small bend at that point. I lost sight of him and it was the last I saw him. I made the call to the Sea Life Center at 6:42. I got back into my car and drove around the Sea Life Center to the end of town and to where I could see water again. It was at that point I called the Conservation Center. The woman I spoke to there had already spoken with Margaret and told me that the goat would go “up” at the very first opportunity it had. She assured me he would find his way and said to try to keep people away from him. At that point, I was alone with my daughter near the big waterfall at the end of town. There was nobody else around. I could see that there was no way around the Sea Life Center sea wall and assumed the goat would, as suggested, head “up” once he realized there was no more beach at the start of the sea wall. I did not go back to the other side of the sea wall. I have wrestled with not going back, but it seems his demise would have been the same regardless… and I’m grateful my little girl didn’t witness the end of the story. I assume that while I was on the phone with the Conservation Center is when your source (Kuester) came on the scene. At that point, there was nowhere for the goat to go but around the Sea Life Center and out of town, up and over the blockage or into the water. Now whether a crowd had gathered around the sea wall at that point, I don’t know. There was not a crowd there when I was. You have asked for facts… those are mine. I would like to add a few other miscellaneous ones as well. It was reported that Troopers were in “hot pursuit”. I will tell you that I did not see one single Trooper at any point during any of this. If they were there at all before the goat died, it was after I made the call to the Wildlife Center. As a note, if I can track a mountain goat in my Subaru, it seems the Troopers might be able to sniff one out. Just saying. It was also reported near my quote that the goat “dove” into the water. I didn’t witness the goat enter the water from the beach, but I’m relatively certain it didn’t dive. I was misquoted by KTUU as saying a spaniel “swam out” to the goat. This did not happen. The spaniel was on shore. The Post article said the goat was seen swimming in front of the Sea Life Center which doesn’t match Kuester’s part of the story or mine. He was swimming further up the beach. Craig you reported that your source said “6 to 8” people were in the area. Certainly you have been in Seward on a sunny July evening. You and I both know there were a hell of a lot more than 8 people between this mountain goat and safety. In sum, I want to say that no, I did not see a throng of rabid photographers running this mountain goat through town. I do believe that people insisting on getting as close to the goat as possible qualifies as harassment. But, let me put it this way. A mile long wall of people, cars, dogs, motorhomes, kids, kites, bikes, buildings, parking lots and skateboards makes a compelling case for a swim – at least in the eyes of a panicked wild animal. I don’t think it’s too anthropomorph-y to theorize this was his thought process. This was a tricky and heartbreaking situation and I’m not sure anything realistically could have changed the outcome – and believe me I have endlessly tossed around scenarios. Save Troopers rolling through town on loud speakers asking everyone to move themselves and their kids and vehicles and dogs away from the goat, it was just plain impossible to give him the space he needed to calm down and get to higher ground. I guess the “harassment” really was lain in the inaction of at least 100 people (most innocent, some not so innocent) watching and photographing this goat. But, we are human. We are taken by the beautiful and unusual and have a hard time looking away. On the small bluff where we saw the mountain goat in the water alongside the sea otter, a woman with a southern accent peeked sideways from her binoculars at my daughter. She said, “You’ll never see this again in your whole life.” I bet she was right. Rest sweetly, beautiful goat. And Craig, I hope this helps you also to get some rest.

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  3. Craig, I saw the goat in the parking lot at Chinook’s. It was also on the platform by the coal chute. I saw it in two other places between there and the Sea Life Center. I was the one who initially reported it to the Sea Life Center and the Wildlife Center. The last I saw the goat was as he approached the sea wal below the Sea Life Center. Why are you so angry about something you didn’t see? You’re taking the word of a woman who claims seeing the goat in a pen at the very end of a long road to the goat’s demise because she’s a NOLS grad?

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    • because everything she says chives with what you and two other witnesses say? it approached the sea wall below the Sea Life Center. it ended up trapped near there. and it jumped to its death. it DIDN’T get chased to its death by a photographers. it was a goat roaming a rocky beach as goats sometimes do. there’s no reason to believe it wouldn’t have made it out of town if it hadn’t hit the Sea Life Center. and at that point, it’s not clear what could have been done. the fence was a bigger problem than the people. i guess someone could have cut that down to allow the goat to make a run for it. or Fish and Game could have tried to dart the goat, but darts take time. it might have gone over the sea wall then. why are you so angry NOLS experience gives someone a degree of credibility?

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