There’s an unwritten rule among those who raise livestock: If loose livestock are spotted, neighboring farmers do what they can to identify and return them to their rightful owner. Livestock that escape typically don’t go far, preferring to remain close to familiar animals and surroundings.

But that isn’t what happened last summer when a steer and a heifer ended up in an animal sanctuary in Newfane, NY. Sanctuary owner Tracy Murphy claimed the animals “wandered” onto her property and refused to return them to their rightful owner. Murphy was charged with third-degree grand larceny for the crime, which has since been reduced to a misdemeanor.

Murphy’s story doesn’t match the cattle owner’s version of what occurred. The owner noticed the two animals were missing from where they were housed and recalled his recent check of gates and fences. All gates were intact and closed properly, and electric fences were fully functioning. The owner later found the animals housed at Murphy’s animal sanctuary about a half-mile from his farm, and despite no hoof prints or manure trail, Murphy insisted the animals wandered to her property so she claimed them.

The sanctuary is on a relatively small piece of property, which means the animal population would be limited, yet Murphy claims she had thousands of dollars in vet bills for the two healthy animals that “showed up there” and is trying to gather additional support and funding. She is currently under a gag order and isn’t allowed to speak to the issue, but supporters have been posting on social media on her behalf.

(A separate supporter currently has a GoFundMe dedicated to the sanctuary with an end goal of raising $150,000, because the business is “currently struggling financially in the wake of a legal battle involving the care of two cows.”)

The story recently became more complicated and potentially serious. A farmer, who will be referred to as “Larry,” raises beef cattle in Niagara County and said he and other farmers in his area are concerned about recent developments as the sanctuary case continues.

“One of my friends saw a car stop at his home and started videotaping his cows,” said Larry, “but by the time he got outside, the guy took off.” Larry said the videotaping took place right after a rally in Tonawanda led by an animal activist group along with people involved with the sanctuary.

The activist group Direct Action Everywhere (DxE) is working to gain attention for the sanctuary case. Although they use some of the typical animal activist tactics to cause a disturbance and gain attention, they’re also known for “open rescue,” in which they gain entry to farms and livestream on social media as group members steal animals from farms. DxE is currently on a nationwide tour to further spread their agenda.

Due to the ongoing sanctuary case, there’s new concern about animal activist activity in the area. Larry said a recent rally included typical animal activist information, including how to enter a property, how to antagonize farmers, how to take animals from the property and how to shoot video that the activists then edit. Activists are willing to risk a lot to unlawfully take animals from farms.

Larry and other farmers are concerned that Murphy’s charge for last summer’s incident has been reduced to a misdemeanor. “That’s like saying ‘You can get away with whatever you want,’” said Larry. “If these people do get onto my farm, how do I know whose farm they’ve been on? We’re a BQA certified farm, and we don’t allow anyone on the farm unless we know who they are and where they’ve been.”

What scares Larry and fellow farmers is if someone comes onto a property and the property owner does something they believe is legal to defend their livestock and prevent loss, it may cost thousands of dollars to defend themselves in court.

After a gathering that included both farmers and area citizens, Larry said the overall feeling is that people in the farming community are worried. “Someone is going to react wrong, someone is going to get hurt,” he said. “Someone is going to be punished when they shouldn’t be.”

Larry and others are becoming more aware of activists’ potential. “A lot of people here are afraid that if we do confront them, we don’t want to start anything but who knows what could turn into ‘something’?” said Larry. “They turn things around so much, and the way videos are today and what you can edit, they can probably put words in your mouth.”

Larry recently established additional pasture but is now afraid to put his cattle there.

Most farmers in the Northeast, including Larry, rely on ear tags to identify livestock. However, since the cattle that somehow “showed up” at the animal sanctuary last summer were missing their ear tags, Larry and others who raise cattle may decide to freeze brand cattle for more permanent identification.

For now, Larry is locking his gates, which is an extra burden and takes more time when moving machinery and livestock. “Everyone is talking about branding their animals,” he said. “Nobody wants to do that, but we have to after watching the video where she argues with the owner of the cows and says ‘How can you prove they’re yours?’”

Anyone who owns livestock should be aware that activist activity can occur anywhere at any time and take precautions to guard against it, including installing extra lighting and security cameras.

Make sure the entire family and all employees know what to do if they don’t recognize people driving slowly near the farm or trespassing on private property. If someone does enter the farm property, the best action is to immediately contact law enforcement, make a report and ask them to come to the farm to deal with the situation.

With activist activity ramping up in some areas, it’s important to avoid discussing or tagging others regarding incidents on social media. While farmers know they are caring for livestock in the best possible way, activists are not interested in explanations of how animals are properly fed, their health overseen by a veterinarian and other aspects of good animal husbandry. Their goal is to eliminate animal agriculture, and the best action is to be aware, immediately report any suspicious activity, take precautions in hiring and don’t allow anyone on the property unless you know them.

by Sally Colby