The Great Yak Escape and the subsequent Yak Attack and Yak Corral of 2019 unfolded across a few miles of previously idyllic woodland in Western Massachusetts. By week’s end, three yaks would be detained in a shed in West Springfield; a 74-year-old alpaca expert would be combing his fence for breaks; and a German shepherd named Sarah would be trying her best to return to normalcy, pushing memories of the attack from her canine mind.
But the tale begins much earlier.
The three yaks in question started their week at the Maple Brook Farm in Westfield, where their owner Mike Tierney lives. Yaks, which are originally from the Tibetan Plateau and can grow to be more than 1,000 pounds, have a prehistoric look to them, all big horns and shaggy legs, and these particular ones enjoyed a relatively luxurious yak life.
On the farm, they could roam 50 acres of pasture and woods, and two of them even had papers registering their names, Kicker and Dahli, with the International Yak Association. (Slogan: “Today’s yak. Tomorrow’s leaders.”)
The family used to raise alpacas, but two years ago Tierney saw yaks at the National Western Stock Show in Colorado and immediately was captivated. First, he found barbecued yak meat to be quite delicious. Second, he thought the fiber on them was “very, very fine and just as nice as alpaca.” Third, they could defend themselves against coyotes. Fourth, they just seemed fun. Soon the family sold most of their 300 alpacas and bought three yaks.
“I got them because I like to have something unusual on the farm, something no one else has. I just didn’t want cows or whatever,” he said. The Tierney yaks are sort of pets, except they have no desire for affection and they also have terrifying white horns that could be used as weapons.
On Wednesday, Tierney discovered that the beloved beasts had gone missing. He guessed they might have been wandering for a few days.
“I was nervous only that they’re a big animal,” Tierney said. “They could cause all kinds of havoc out there.”
A couple miles away, Todd Steglinski, 42, and his dog Sarah were hiking on the Bear Hole Reservoir Trail at dusk. As they made their way down the trail, Steglinski spotted three large black animals drinking at the dam below. He assumed they were black bears, but when he and Sarah got closer, he realized he was wrong.
“It’s not a deer or raccoon or anything,” he said. “How often do you see yaks out in the middle of the woods?” One yak, which Steglinski said looked like “a nice big cuddly cow” except gargantuan, left the water’s edge and began to advance toward him and Sarah.
“My shepherd went up to it. She went nose to nose with it. It gave her a gentle head butt,” Steglinski said. Then the yak snorted, put its head down, and charged. Steglinski decided it was probably time to go, and turned to leave. By then, the other two yaks had joined the alpha yak. Steglinski started to run; so did the yaks.
“Your blood starts pumping. You’ve got these 3,000-pound animals galloping towards you like a little stampede,” he said. “They picked up the pace. I was like ‘. . . I’m not out here for a battle.’ ” As he ran, he called the police to warn them about what he had found. The dispatcher “immediately handed the phone over to the supervisor,” he said.
He ran, and the yaks ran, and Sarah the dog ran, until everybody got tired out and dispersed.
The Yak Attack was over. But the saga of the yaks was not.
Soon, residents were alerted of the menace. “PLEASE take notice they could still be out there and are NOT approachable,” the West Springfield Environmental Committee posted on Facebook on Wednesday.
“I was shocked,” said Will Reichelt, the mayor of West Springfield. “I’ve been getting text messages all day with pictures of the yak.”
The day after the attack, the Yak Corral began. Tierney and West Springfield Animal Control arrived at the Bear Hole Reservoir and surrounded the three yaks with two police cruisers and a jeep, Tierney said. The yaks were basically on vacation, with ample grazing and water, and they were not eager to return home. Tierney knew that whatever operation followed would require cunning.
“If they catch on to what your intent is, they definitely don’t want to be caught,” Tierney said. But he knew his creatures well. He brought a pail of grain and banged the grain with a scoop, a signal the yaks had learned back home on the farm. When they heard it, they followed him.
In that way, he and half a dozen others coaxed the yaks into a building and shut the door. They had finally been caught. In time, they would be ushered into a trailer and brought back to Maple Brook, where they will hopefully live out the remainder of their days quietly and peacefully.
“I’m discovering I obviously had a breach in the fence somewhere,” Tierney said, “that I haven’t found yet.”