This afternoon, monotonous online conversation about Katy Perry and our crumbling democracy cleared briefly to make room for a conversation about cows. Specifically one cow, which had escaped from a slaughterhouse in Jamaica, Queens and was charging through the streets with all the grace of, well, a giant cow on the run. Soon after the cow escaped, live streams of the chase appeared on NBC and CBS. “Loose in Queens” began trending on Twitter. And in the classic first step for any moderately viral internet thing, someone made the cow its own Twitter account.
Animal chases, especially in recent years, have proven their formula for fleeting virality again and again. In 2015, there was the llama chase in Arizona, which spawned dozens of tweets about two llamas on the loose. In January, there was Ollie the Bobcat, who escaped from in Washington DC’s National Zoo. And there was the Harlem deer, who, while not exactly on the run, took up residence in a public park and became something of a hometown hero. When these chases are live-streamed, as in the case of the cow and the llamas, they’re bestowed with outsized importance in real time.
The creation of this inflated importance is reciprocal between news organizations, social-media platforms, and viewers themselves. Networks know people will watch videos of animals on the run, so they live stream them. Readers think a live-streamed chase is inherently worth watching, so they’ll watch. These stories also seem to pick up the most chatter on Twitter, where a chronological timeline forces the conversation to move quickly, and journalists who stare at their feeds all day rush in to become part of it.
But no matter where it’s posted or how it spreads, there’s something inherently appealing about an animal chase. The timelines are almost always the same: an animal escapes from somewhere, and the story slowly begins to bubble on Twitter. As it picks up more steam, live streams buoy the initial conversation. The animal, which was initially running alone, is by now being pursued by law enforcement or animal control. The chase ends with a capture. It’s usually all over in about an hour, which means it’s easy to justify taking time out of your day to watch it.
There are simple things to say about the joy of watching an animal out of context. A cow leaping through a city street is more fun to watch than a cow on a farm. This erasure of familiar setting allows us to more easily imagine these animals as separate from their species. The llamas aren’t just llamas, they’re rogue heroes railing against cages they were forced into. The cow isn’t just a pre-hamburger, it’s a big, blundering alien in a new landscape, yearning for freedom.
A decade ago, these chases might have remained local stories, but as live-streaming has become more common and accessible, they’re able to spread and die as quickly as memes. And they do die, figuratively speaking. An animal on the run loses almost all its intrigue once the chase is over. After capture, it goes back to just being another animal.
People really only want to witness the transformation, not the outcome, because the transformation happens live. Anyone able to watch an animal chase unfold and close in real time becomes part of a special club, full of members who saw a cow become a metaphor and a distraction, then go back to being a cow again.