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.
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.