How the St. Louis Six Escaped the Slaughterhouse: an Oral History

Apr 3, 2019 at 6:00 am
The St. Louis Six included, from left to right, Houdini, Roo, Chico, Johnny Cash and Eddie.
The St. Louis Six included, from left to right, Houdini, Roo, Chico, Johnny Cash and Eddie. COURTESY OF GENTLE BARN

Even a cow knows his own mortality. Two years ago, six steers knew enough to notice an unchained gate at a St. Louis slaughterhouse. It may have been the only chance the St. Louis Six ever had, and they seized it — dashing through the city streets for hours in a desperate bid for freedom.

Or perhaps a cow in a slaughterhouse knows only its terror. Maybe, as a slaughterhouse employee later claimed to police, it was just the crash of a thunderstorm that startled the cows into their stampede.

On March 30, 2017, a city of fractious humans watched in awe as animals took to the streets. In a way, it was the St. Louis version of O.J. Simpson's trip down the freeway in that white Bronco. A city was riveted by the slow-motion spectacle — and seemingly everybody was rooting for the cows.

Their apparent leader, nicknamed Chico, was a big reason for that. Even after others were picked off, Chico avoided capture at every turn, juking and twisting his massive-yet-nimble body through gaps in corrals, even shaking off police SUVs smashing into his flank in attempted pit-stop maneuvers.

Eventually, all six were captured, but St. Louis wasn't willing to let these stars end their lives in the slaughterhouse. A host of different groups and individuals rose up overnight in multiple bids to keep the escapees from becoming someone's dinner.

Now, almost exactly two years later, five of the six cows who wanted to live are doing just that, less than an hour away from the slaughterhouse from which they escaped. For the first time, more than a dozen people involved in the rescue are telling the complete story of what happened that day, its aftermath, as well as what happened to Spirit, the cow who didn't make it.

Curiously, not one of the eyewitnesses to the escape interviewed for this story can recall the thunderstorm mentioned in the police report on the incident. They insist the day was clear. What they do recall from March 30, 2017, was not a thunderclap — only the sound of hooves pounding north-city cement.

Chico refused to be cornered, bursting through an iron fence and evading police for hours. - COURTESY OF GENTLE BARN
Chico refused to be cornered, bursting through an iron fence and evading police for hours.

Act 1: Escape

Just after noon on March 30, 2017, six steers escaped the Star Packing Company, a slaughterhouse and butcher specializing in halal meats. They were the only beef stock in the pen, and they were to be killed.

Fate had other plans. According to a report by the St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department, an employee revealed the chain around the gate holding the steers within their pen "was not secure at the time." The employee, the report continues, "stated he was standing outside the pen when a thunderstorm started. The storm spooked the steers and one of the steers kicked at the gate to the pen, causing the gate to open." Police were quickly summoned.

Buck Ford, owner of Buck's Towing, three blocks from the slaughterhouse: I was working here on the lot and I looked outside the gate, and I saw these, might have been four or five cows. I had my truck parked over there, and they was trying to squeeze through between the truck and my car. They messed up the side of my truck.

Jeffrey Smith, Buck's employee: They totaled Buck's truck on one side and kept on moving. ... Man, it was crazy! I mean, it was fucking bulls running through the city of St. Louis! How often would you see that? I saw this one guy, he came running out of his yard with a clothesline, and he was trying to round them up.

David Carson, photographer, St. Louis Post-Dispatch: We got a tip in the newsroom, it was [crime reporter] Christine Byers who got it from a contact that there were cows running around in north city. So we were trying to figure out where that was taking place, because by the time we'd heard about the cows, the cows had traveled a fair amount of distance. .... The police have encrypted their scanners, but every now and then something drops across. So I heard a little nugget come across the scanner, and it said [to] look for the cows up by a White Castle up in north city.

Smith: Me and a friend, we followed the cows all the way down to Maffitt and Vandeventer, and then they made a right. I followed them and they hit St. Louis Avenue, and they made a left at Grand. And then we followed them and they crossed Natural Bridge. The cows were so close to me, I patted a couple of them on the head, from out the truck window. ... They took a break in the park and looked around, like, "What should we do next?" I guess the leader of the pack said, "Let's run for it again."

Carson: When I went over there, initially I thought I'd missed all the cows running through the streets and stuff. The police had a group of the cows pinned in, behind a chain-link fence. They had another one trapped in a backyard ... people were standing around; a lot of people were smiling. It was a jovial thing, like, "Look at these cows out running around in the 'hood!"