Hed Lines: Grabbing animal rights activists' bull by the horns

Dee Bunker, a recent journalism school graduate, landed her first job at the Pikerville, Utah, Gazette-Advocate, and approached even rote tasks with enthusiasm.

Bunker did not expect to make a name for herself so soon in her career – and at a tri-weekly, small-town newspaper.

A superficially routine story got her branded as a hotshot reporter.

She filed a brief about unidentified thieves stealing a local landmark: a wood steer that adorned the roof of the Piker Bull Steakhouse.

The culprits apparently drilled through the cement that held the bull in place and used a rope to move the bull to a getaway vehicle.

On the next day, restaurant owner Cal Hyde issued a press release in which he offered a $500 reward for information leading to the safe return of the steer, affectionately called Bully.

"Bully has been a part of the family for years," Hyde said.

"I named him for a grand champion steer that I entered at the county fair when I was 10 years old.

He became my first top sirloin, a real thick, juicy steak."

A day after the reward story ran, Bunker received a phone call from a woman who claimed to know about Bully's whereabouts.

"I'll give you a big scoop if you show up at the forest clearing five miles south of town at 7 o'clock tonight," the woman said.

"And don't bring any police."

The woman hung up before Bunker could ask for her name.

Bunker consulted her immediate supervisor, editor Ward Smith, who authorized her to go out on the assignment.

However, concerned for her safety, Smith agreed to accompany her – surreptitiously.

He hid in the trunk of her subcompact.

Bunker arrived at the appointed time, and waited for the news source to arrive.

Three women dressed in khakis and wearing steer and cow masks approached her vehicle.

"We're the Vegan Pagans," one masked woman said.

They introduced themselves as Flora, Ann and Fawna.

Flora sat on the hood of Bunker's car, locking it.

They refused to take off their masks.

"For the time being, the masks are our mystique, just like Zorro or Subcommander Marcos," Ann said.

Bunker asked why the Vegan Pagans had taken Bully.

"We are protesting the exploitation of animals," Fawna said.

"Cattle are not chattel."

"What do you hope to accomplish?" Bunker asked.

"Are you holding Bully for ransom? Under what circumstances would you return him?"

Flora said the Vegan Pagans would return Bully if the steakhouse's owners expanded the vegetarian menu.

The trio took Bunker to a pickup truck and removed a tarpaulin that hid Bully.

Bunker took photos of the Vegan Pagans standing guard near Bully.

"We have to go now," Flora said.

"How do I get in touch with you?" Bunker asked.

"We'll call you when the spirit moves up," Ann said.

Bunker drove home to her studio apartment, watched television and went to bed.

She awoke at 2 a.m.

when paramedics pounded on her door.

"Dee, you forgot that you left your editor in the trunk of your car," one paramedic said.

"We'll need to borrow your keys."

Smith had fallen asleep during the ride, and called 911 on his cell phone after he tried unsuccessfully to pry the hood open.

He declined medical treatment.

Bunker called Hyde for comment before filing the story for the Wednesday edition.

"I will not change my menu," he said.

"I do not kowtow to animal rights' radicals.

These women are cowards."

The story and photo ran on the Associated Press wire, and appeared in newspapers throughout the state and nation.

After the story ran, Sheriff Rick O'Shay called a press conference in which he announced that the sheriff's office would provide round-the-clock security for the livestock entries in the upcoming county fair.

Standing by Hyde's side, O'Shay put in a plug for his candidacy for the state Legislature.

"If I am elected to the steakhouse, I mean the statehouse, I will pass legislation to make a mandatory sentence of 25 years to life for criminals convicted to animal rights' activism," O'Shay said.

"I will make it my mission to catch these Vegan Pagans, even if it means grabbing them by their horns."

To be continued ….

Ken Hedler is the county government and political reporter for the Miner.