This story has been updated with a general location of the sighting.
Clickbait used to be the prey of shabby journalists and “some blogger probably sittin’ there in their parent’s basement wearing their pajamas blogging some kind of gossip or lie” as former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin once observed.
Then it became the forte of “fake news.”
“How Teens In The Balkans Are Duping Trump Supporters With Fake News,” BuzzFeed reported in the run-up to the 2016 election; it credited a 16-year-old said to be operating BVANews.com with “averaging 1 million page views a month.”
That would be a million people per month clicking on a web link to find out what is hiding behind.
And now joining the competition for pageviews is, well, everybody.
The Anchorage Police Department was Monday featuring a “WHAT IS IT? #whatisit” teaser of a video on its Facebook page soliciting people to click on an APD video and voice an opinion on what animal they thought appeared there.
First, though, APD prejudiced viewers with a tease:
“Could it be the rumored black wolf roaming the Hillside?” the page asked.
The public purpose here?
Maybe checking to see whether Little Red Riding Hood needed to be warned about the dangers of venturing onto the city’s ski trails? You never know what could be lurking out there.
Wolf? Dog? Wolfdog?
Despite the query as to what the animal in the photo might be, APD made clear its opinion for anyone who opened the link to get a full screen view.
“Wolf 2-5-18,” the video declared in the upper left corner.
The evidence to support this conclusion? The best guess of some unnamed someone.
Wildlife biologist Cory Stantorf, the Alaska Department of Fish and Game biologist put in charge of “The Case of the #Whatisit” when the media started chasing this rumor, said a whole lot of state biologists intimately familiar with wolves looked at the video and not a one of them was convinced the animal was a wolf.
There was also some discussion about whether the animal was wearing a collar or might have been wearing a collar. Viewed carefully in profile, the APD wolf shows a strange break in its fur just below its neck about where a collar would be.
Wolves do not wear collars, although on the outside chance this was a wolf even if it didn’t look all that wolfie, Stantorf admitted biologists in Anchorage did contact biologists in the Mantanuska-Susitna Valley who have been radio-collaring wolves to see if any of their animals took off for the big city.
The answer was no.
Stantorf did confirm there have been reports of a black wolf on the Hillside, but biologists have been unable to confirm those reports. Nobody has provided a good picture of a wolf there or even of wolf tracks. The reports are rumors.
Photos have popped up online of a pack of grayish Anchorage “wolves” on the Hillside, but they are coyotes – albeit big, healthy ones – not wolves.
Wolves and coyotes are fairly easy to tell apart if you know the differences between them. Coyotes have narrow, pointy faces and big ears like old Wile E. Coyote of cartoon fame. Wolves have broad snouts and large, black nose pads.
Their tracks are an even bigger giveaway. Wolf tracks are big, about the size of a man’s hand. Coyote tracks are about half that size. Wolf tracks look even bigger than what you might expect for a 70- to 140-pound animal. Coyote tracks look like just about what you would expect from a 20- to 50-pound, coyote-size dog.
Dogs and wolves can be harder to tell apart because dogs come in such a broad variety of shapes and sizes. But size is often the biggest giveaway.
“It can be difficult to distinguish between wolves, coyotes and dogs, especially if the light is bad, the sighting is brief or the animal is far away,” notes Western Wildlife Outreach, an organization trying to preserve carnivores in the state of Washington. “Because of their relatively long legs and lanky body, the first impression of a wolf is often that of a deer or calf, not of a large dog or coyote.
“Distinguishing a wolf from a domestic hybrid can be difficult unless the animal has characteristics of a domestic breed such as a curly tail or floppy ears. Wolf-dog hybrids are more difficult and may be misclassified even with sophisticated measurements.”
The APD video, which captures #whatisit in the headlights of a patrol car at night, would be the definition of “the light is bad.” The animal’s color could be black or it could be dark brown. There is little in the video to offer much in the way of perspective as to how big “#whatisit,” but the animal does walk past a piece of wooden lath or metal culvert marker stuck in a ditch alongside the road.
The animal appears to be about two-thirds to three-quarters as tall as the lath or marker. Wolves usually stand about two-and-a-half-feet tall at the shoulder. Unfortunately, it is impossible to tell from the video how tall the marker.
APD has not provided the location of the photo. But APD Communications Director MJ Thim said today that it was in the “Barry Avenue and Olympia Circle area of Birch Road.” Its location, however, really doesn’t matter much for this story because the APD post wasn’t about animal identification, it was about this:
APD’s Faceback page has been slowly but steadily creeping into the entertainment business to attract eyeballs. Take its “What Not To Do Wednesday” feature. Asked in December about the details on a drunk driving anecdote that appeared just a little to bizarre to have been missed by the general news media, Thim offered this:
“I don’t have those details.
“When we pick the public safety tip for WNTDW, we ask members (officers, detectives, dispatchers..etc.) to share situations they’ve encountered over the years to use as examples of what not to do. We pick a few to include in the post. We don’t ask for the names/date/time/location/case number because that’s not the intent of the post. Many of the situations happened years ago.”
Some of those WNTDW posts leave a reasonable woman or man wondering if they even happened in Alaska. But certainly they happened to someone, somewhere, at sometime or at least they could have. And the general public reception seems to be positive.
Thim is an old TV news guy. He understands the most important rule here. If people are buying something, sell them more.
“Love it APD! Post things like this more often,” one woman wrote on the #whatisit post that attracted dozens of comments and more than 10,000 views at last count.
Plenty of people seemed to have been entertained playing the guessing game, too: Wolf, dog, honey badger, cutie, coyote, nice rolling stop, damn big boy, half breed, large fox, and “it was posted to a pet page a week ago, it had a collar on.”
The good news in all of this?
By bringing more and more eyeballs to APD social media, the agency greatly broadens its reach. Thus, it should get more Anchorage residents looking if it asks for support in tracking down wanted criminals or collecting information on criminal activities.
And if the agency can in the future turn its social media – Facebook, Twitter, Nixle and who knows what next – into the online go-to source for police news, you as a consumer won’t have to worry about getting the news from journalists who might or might not cover it.
Take this to its logical end in a capitalist society, and law enforcement will have freed itself from being forced to deal with pesky journalists with their unnecessary questions because there will be no need for newspapers, radio, TV or even online news.
Clear, precise, what-could-possibly-be-wrong-with-this, state-run media will have been achieved without a whimper.
CORRECTION: This story was edited after publication to provide the general location of the #whatisit sighting.