By Matt Reese
In what appears to be more than coincidental livestock escapes, multiple animals have been killed, people have been injured and there has been significant property damage in northeast Ohio. It seems as if trespassers are releasing livestock.
On the evening of Nov. 30, 2021, 12 horses escaped from a Mahoning County farm and there were three separate traffic accidents killing three of the horses. Injuries were reported for a driver and passenger in one of the vehicles that struck one of the horses, according to the Jackson Township fire department. The other nine escaped horses were corralled by police and returned to the farm.
“I live in North Jackson. I was at the school and heading home. They had shut down Mahoning Avenue and we had to go around. We could see one of the cars that hit the horse. It definitely looked like a lot of damage, but it sounded like everyone was OK,” said Jennifer Pemberton, Mahoning County Farm Bureau president. “There were some horses injured and killed in that incident with a couple of vehicles involved in some accidents. Since then we have heard of some other situations where a couple of horses had been let out and in one case some dairy cows had been let out. In some cases they have seen a wire has been cut or a fence has been cut or a gate has been left open. Over the last few weeks we have had a few of these instances. There definitely seems to be something malicious going on.”
In addition, five alpacas were let loose on Dec. 6. Livestock owners in the area are on guard and have been advised to install cameras if possible.
“When you hear something happen like that you think, ‘I need to double-check locking things.’ The first one you hear about, you think it is an accident. When you start to hear a couple more you wonder, hmmm what’s going on here. Where the dairy cows were involved I know I heard that person say they knew they double-checked everything,” Pemberton said. “We absolutely know this sort of thing can happen once in a while, but this is a little too many cases in too short of a time to think it is just happening.”
She said the incidents have been in central Mahoning County and into Columbiana County.
“We don’t know what is going on. It could just be people making bad choices. We need to be diligent about watching out for things and if we see something say something. This is a huge liability situation for the producer, no matter what is being let out,” Pemberton said. “Some of the incidents have been reported to the local sheriff. What we have been trying to do as part of Farm Bureau is to make sure any situations that happen, whether there is financial loss or injury or whatever, just make sure it gets reported because the local police need all the information they can get.”
Pemberton also advised area Farm Bureau members to post the Ohio Farm Bureau Property Protection Program signs offering a $5,000 reward to anyone providing information to law enforcement that leads to the arrest and conviction of persons for eligible property crimes committed against a Farm Bureau member’s property. For the reward to be paid, the person providing information, the Farm Bureau member, and the crime must meet the eligibility criteria and all terms and conditions of this program.
In addition to the $5,000, the Mahoning County Farm Bureau is offering an additional $1,000 reward.
“As a Farm Bureau member you have the ability to post the sign with the $5,000 reward. The information has to lead to the arrest or prosecution but anyone can get that award,” Pemberton said. “If anyone does have a tip or know anything we need to make sure they are reporting that so we can put an end to this. Ultimately we just want everyone to be safe. I can’t imagine driving up in the dark and meeting a cow or horse on the road.”
There is also the legal issue of liability for the owners of the livestock and there are statewide penalties for incidents due to animals at large.
“We do have laws in the state of Ohio that make it a crime technically to allow animals, be they horses, cows, sheep, goats, swine, llamas, alpacas, poultry, pretty much all of them, to allow them to be either on the public road or to be on somebody else’s land or on an unenclosed land. So that law is trying to make sure that we don’t have those issues where animals are going to be out. They’re going to be causing damage, going to be involved in car accidents and that kind of thing,” said Leah Curtis, policy counsel with Ohio Farm Bureau. “So this would be a fourth degree misdemeanor if you would be found guilty of it, and to be found guilty of the fourth degree misdemeanor, the prosecutor would need to show that you had violated the statute recklessly. And that’s a legal term. But basically, what that means is there was a substantial risk that this was going to happen and you ignored that risk and took no action to try to prevent it.”
For a fourth degree misdemeanor, the penalty is up to 30 days in jail and/or up to a $250 fine, Curtis said.
“What we typically see happen with animals at large when we have seen people be charged with it is they get fined, particularly in a first offense situation. If it continues to be a problem, we have seen even recently some people who have had nine or 10 different prosecutions for animals at large,” Curtis said. “And that is where a judge is getting to the point of saying, ‘Hey, I’m going to put you in jail because you are not taking the actions you need to keep your animals in their enclosures.’”
In a situation where the animals are let out by a trespasser, charges against the owner of the livestock are unlikely.
“If a trespasser is releasing animals from their enclosure or damaging fences to allow animals to escape that is unlikely to result in charges to the livestock owner,” Curtis said. “In those situations where someone else intervened to allow the animals to escape, the livestock owner would likely not meet the standard of ‘recklessly’ allowing animals to run at large.”