He Is the Champion: A Steer’s Triumphant Escape to Jersey

Meet Freddie Mercury, the brave cow who escaped a New York slaughterhouse to become the headliner at a Sussex County animal sanctuary.

Illustration by Greg Clarke

For a while, it looked like curtains for Freddie Mercury, a 900-pound steer named for the late front man of the band Queen. But Freddie, who in January was bound for a New York slaughterhouse, had a different future in mind. He broke free of his captors and roamed the streets of Queens for an hour, earning his 15 minutes of fame and an eventual reprieve.

“A friend sent me a text saying there was a cow loose,” recalls Mike Stura, who runs Skylands Animal Sanctuary and Rescue in Wantage. Meanwhile, Freddie was dodging traffic, the NYPD and his future as brisket. But police cornered Freddie in a parking garage and sent him back to the slaughterhouse, set to be beef the next morning. That’s where Stura made his stand, camping overnight in his truck, with  a slew of other free-the-cow supporters phoning in pleas to the slaughterhouse to let Freddie go. On execution day, the owner caved. Freddie, whose name was inspired by the borough of his escape, headed for New Jersey.

A brown, red and white, pink-nosed Hereford, Freddie is now the star resident at the 232-acre Sussex County sanctuary, which opened two years ago. His best cow buds, snatched from starvation and abuse, include Bill, Rosie, Pam and Shelia. Together they lumber from their barn to a pasture with views of the Kittatinny Ridge.

“I think I have a unique reach because I’m a blue-collar guy,” says the 50-year-old Stura, a mechanic and vegan who sports a nose ring and tattoos announcing his mission: animal defender. His wife, Wendy, a hairstylist, is also active in the cause. Six years ago, the two became vegan, meaning they won’t eat any food with animal-derived ingredients. The date of Mike’s vegan conversion (“6-5-2010”) is tattooed on his arm.

The Sturas’ non-profit sanctuary occupies land that was once a satellite campus for the now defunct Upsala College. It was purchased with the help of donors; donations and volunteer hours also helped build barns and sheds, run electrical fencing and turn a wood shop into a visitors’ center. Last July, Wantage Township approved a plan to make the farmhouse a bed-and-breakfast, although that has yet to be implemented.

Mike leads two walking tours daily on weekends through November, telling rescue stories and introducing visitors to animals meant for meat: cows, chickens, pigs, goats, sheep, turkeys and a goose (suggested donation $10 per person; no reservations required). Sometimes, Mike hosts a vegan barbecue at the end of his tour.

As for the couple’s efforts to counter a food industry that gobbles up billions of animals annually, Mike acknowledges their work is “a drop in the bucket.” But, he adds, “to one individual animal, it means everything.”

Patricia Herold is a freelance writer who  lives in Boonton Township with alpacas, pygmy goats, miniature sheep and cows as neighbors. She hasn’t eaten mammal or bird meat in nearly 20 years.

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