Loose Animals

Steve Boyles, OSU Extension Beef Specialist

Loose animals can be livestock like cattle and horses or wildlife like deer and elk or even dogs and alligators. Studies by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) show that vehicle-animal collisions are responsible for an annual average of 155 occupant deaths, and three out of four of these involve deer. These collisions also account for tens of thousands of injuries each year, according to the National Safety Council.

Trailer accidents, barn fires, escaped animals onto the highway, and animals caught in mud or broken through ice are all events emergency responder have been called to. Many districts do not have protocols, formal training or specialized equipment to rescue livestock. While the incidence of loose livestock is minimal in urban environments it can still happen. Loose livestock can be a frequent issue in some rural districts. Succession planning is a critical element of organization strategy. This relates to the Unites States Fire administration operational objective to respond appropriately in a timely manner to emerging issues.


On local and state levels, prevention of loose animals would include support of animal control officers and humane society efforts to increase the quality of fencing as well as laws that would mandate stiff consequences for owners of loose animals, especially repeat offenders.

  • Interact with the local university extension service to conduct a meeting on loose livestock. Don’t assume all livestock producers understand the best methods of containment or transport animals.
  • Similarly interact with local 4-H, FFA groups. Similar to early seat-belt laws, educating the youth and indirectly educate the adults.
  • Promote loose livestock education to local, statewide, and national organizations

Legal Aspects of Loose Animals and Fence

All 50 states have enacted statutes that address issues of livestock running at large and the fences that may or may not be required to keep them confined. These “fence law” statutes can vary widely from state to state. Many states require owners of livestock to secure the livestock on property that they own or lease; however there are some western states that still follow the “open range” doctrine. The “open range” states reverse the duty to fence in livestock and allow livestock to roam in certain remote parts of the state while requiring other landowners to fence off their land if they wish to keep livestock off of their property. States’ Fence Law Statutes provides the statutory text of each state’s fence and livestock running at large statutes, along with the date of its possible expiration (Source: R. W. Rumley, National Agricultural Law Center)

Most states require owners to make reasonable effort to maintain fences to keep livestock off public roadways. State laws should be investigated by responders in their jurisdiction. Even the legal definition of a fence can vary.

Example 1: Ohio
“Preferred partition fence” means a partition fence that is a woven wire fence, either standard or high tensile, with one or two strands of barbed wire located not less than forty-eight inches from the ground or a nonelectric high tensile fence of at least seven strands and that is constructed in accordance with the United States natural resources conservation service conservation practice standard for fences, code 382. “Preferred partition fence” includes a barbed wire, electric, or live fence, provided that the owners of adjoining properties agree, in writing, to allow such fences.

Example 2: Maryland
Maryland has no statute or court decision that defines standards a fence should be built to. Because Maryland has adopted no standards that a fence should built to, a landowner should consider building the fence to a height, number of wires, post distance, and with materials necessary to keep the livestock in.

The laws often provides for liability if a motor vehicle or train strikes an animal but whether the liability driver of any vehicle approaching any horse drawn vehicle, any ridden animal or any livestock sha1l exercise proper control of the vehicle and shall reduce speed as necessary in order to avoid frightening and to safeguard the animal or livestock to insure the safety of any person driving or riding the animal or in charge of the livestock. However, for animals that are not under the direct control of a person, the owner may be subject to liability.

Ohio Law for Livestock Running Loose: Criminal liability will occur only when proven that a livestock operator behaved “recklessly” in allowing the animal to run loose (Peggy Hall, OSU Extension, 2011). Under Ohio law, a person behaves recklessly when he or she perversely disregards a know risk of his or her conduct, with heedless indifference to the consequences of that conduct. For example, a livestock owner who see but intentionally ignores a downed fence where cattle graze near a roadway could be deemed “reckless.”

A person may recover damages against a livestock owner if harm resulted because of the livestock owner’s “negligence” caused the animals to escape. For example, a livestock owner who has not checked the line fences in a grazing area for several years could be deemed “negligent.”

Open Range

In some U.S counties there are still free-range grazing law, these may alter the legal implications of a collision with an animal (Nixon, 2006). The owner or the person in possession of the animals may not be held liable for injury or damage when free-ranging animals are involved. For example, there is no “finders keeper” when it come to loose (estray) livestock in Texas. A person finding estray cattle on their property must inform the local sheriff department of the existence of the livestock. Otherwise they can be charged with theft (i.e. cattle rustling). Legislation is more vague or variable on exotic animals.

The sheriff will then notify the original owner or, if the owner is unknown, impound the livestock. If the owner still cannot be located the livestock may be sold and the funds used for county purposes. The person that found the loose livestock can be reimbursed for maintenance and/or damages to their property.

In some counties, handling loose livestock can take many hours of the week by the sheriff’s department. Some departments have begun impounding the animals rather than directly returning them to the owner.

Loose Animals – Where did they come from?

If possible look along the fence where you found the livestock. You may find the hole where they got out. This may save time and labor compare to cutting fence where you found the livestock. Look for tracks or laid down graze to see where animals came from. Putting a light on the hole may assist in drawing animals back in case you are working in the dark.

Exotic Animals

Some states like Michigan and Ohio have legislation on exotic animal ownership and housing.
After the Ohio Dangerous Wild Animal Act became effective in 2012, owners of dangerous wild animals in Ohio are be required to register their animals with the Ohio Department of Agriculture. Unless exempted, the law requires all animals to be micro-chipped at the time of registration. It is suggested to have an entity familiar with exotic animals (such as a local zoo) on the emergency call list.

What Might You Find at an Accident?

It can be difficult for drivers to see animals. Some animals have hair that diffracts light. The natural colors of many animals can be dark or earth-tones. Many semi-truck accidents involving livestock occur at night. Movement in wildlife can be at night but also early morning and dusk. A vehicle does not have to impact a large animal very hard or fast for it to land on the hood of the vehicle and go into the windshield. The center of gravity of a large animal like a horse is higher than most cars. Uninjured animals that are thrown from a trailer may just be grazing in the median or on the side of the roadway. It is more difficult to effectively move excited or frightened animals.

A list of agencies/individuals that may be involved can include the following:

  • Animal control
  • Law enforcement
  • Firefighters
  • Veterinarians
  • EMS
  • A livestock hauler
  • The owner of the animal(s)
  • Wildlife are under the jurisdiction of the Department of Wildlife
  • Operational Directives – Does an operational directive exist? A citizen’s call to 911 might garner a response of “Contact Animal Control” (Who does not deal with large animal rescue).

A Veterinarian

In a perfect world it would be nice to have a “large animal” veterinarian to be on the call-out list. A veterinarian can assist with rescue, but veterinarians are not trained in the incident command system (ICS) or other rescue functions. Do not assume all veterinarians are experts in large animal medicine. Similarly, do not assume all veterinarians are experts in large animal handling techniques. Veterinarians should be integrated into the emergency management plan before the incident so that details concerning incorporation into the command system and financial reimbursement can be determined. The veterinary personnel are not in charge of the emergency operation.

Tranqulizer Gun

Training will be required of anyone using a tranquilizer gun. To fire the gun effectively, you may be need to be within 30 yards of the target. If you shoot an injured animal with a tranquilizer gun, It may affect the diagnosis by a veterinarian. Pulse and respiration will be skewed. Veterinary oversight and certification may be required in the use of these drugs and equipment. Do not assume that a tranquilizer will be completely effective on a highly agitated, dangerous animal.

A Packing Plant

Do not assume a local packing plant with take animals from an accident. There are issues of ownership and these animals can be of unknown origin for the packing plant The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) prohibits processing of animals like cattle that become non-ambulatory after they pass federal veterinary inspection, as of March 2009.

Opportunities for Training

The Bovine Emergency Response Plan (BERP) program is a training targeted at dispatchers, first responders, emergency managers, veterinarians, extension educators and others directly or indirectly involved in responding to vehicle accidents involving cattle and other animals. The program provides the education for emergency personnel to develop their own dispatch tree and emergency response plan when cattle are involved. Emergency responders will feel more prepared and knowledgeable if they are prepared for these situations.
Interested personnel can contact Lisa Pederson or Steve Boyles.

EDITOR’s NOTE: The Columbus Dispatch published two news stories about loose livestock in August.