A pair of livestock experts say Skowhegan’s police chief overreacted when he shot and killed a bull that had gotten loose and been chased through city streets by officers using their patrol car loudspeakers to warn pedestrians.

Hercules escaped from a trailer and eluded police for 90 minutes Monday before being shot and falling dead into the Kennebec River. Contributed photo

The livestock experts said the chase probably added to the bull’s stress, and that it would have been better to have given the bull time and space to calm down.

However, law enforcement officials countered that there are no detailed protocols for situations involving livestock and that public safety must be the top priority.

Even though escaped livestock is nothing new in rural Maine, it’s less common for police to be called on to address the problem.

“They can be dangerous and I don’t know that this animal wasn’t, but I don’t think it’s necessary to shoot animals as often as it happens,” said Mike Stura, founder of Skylands Animal Sanctuary and Rescue, a farm animal rescue organization in Wantage, New Jersey. “Livestock are big strong animals who can hurt people. I don’t think everyone should wrangle an animal, but I also don’t think that means it should be shot.”

Over 3 miles and an hour and a half on Monday, police pursued the loose bull, named Hercules, using their cruiser loudspeakers to warn pedestrians to get out of the way as they chased the animal through two major intersections, across a bridge and through downtown Skowhegan streets.

SOME FARMERS OUTRAGED

The bull, recently purchased for $840 at a Fairfield auction house, ultimately ended up swimming across the Kennebec River and was attempting to make it up the river bank when the police chief shot and killed it, devastating its owner and sparking outrage from some local farmers.

Skowhegan Police Chief David Bucknam stands by the decision to shoot Hercules, saying the bull posed a threat to public safety.

With no protocol on how to handle loose livestock and confronted with a 600-pound animal, police officers whose first thought is public safety might be wary of giving a bull space, especially after the animal has broken through fences.

Hercules was found about 1½ miles from where he originally broke out of the trailer he was in. He had slipped out of the rope that was holding him in and jumped the gate in the back. He then broke through a chain-link fence, Bucknam said. He was trapped in a small area, but as his owner tried to corral him, he broke through the fence again and trotted into town.

“I’m sure he was extremely stressed, and that’s probably why he broke through the fence when they did corral him,” said Colt Knight, an assistant professor and livestock specialist at the University of Maine Cooperative Extension.

The best advice Knight had for trying to capture a loose animal is not to chase it but to give it space to calm down.

But after Hercules broke loose, police followed the bull in cruisers with the PA system warning pedestrians.

“I’m not familiar with the situation, but I probably wouldn’t have done that,” Knight said.

Hercules traveled past Redington-Fairview General Hospital, through two major intersections and across the Margaret Chase Smith bridge onto Island Avenue.

According to the chief, the animal’s owner tried to corner Hercules with his truck, but the bull rammed the truck, circled around it and kept heading north on Island Avenue, eventually jumping into the Kennebec River and swimming to the south side.

By that time, Bucknam said, a large crowd had gathered to see what was going on. As Hercules attempted to scale the riverbank, the only option was to shoot him to protect the public, Bucknam said.

The bull’s body, which floated downstream and over Weston Dam, has yet to be recovered.

No police report of the incident was made, Bucknam said.

Martin Lane, a farmer who witnessed the chase, said he told the chief to wait before shooting, that his nephew was on the way with ropes to harness the bull, but he said the chief didn’t listen.

The bull’s owner, who has declined to give his name, also said he had called a veterinarian with a tranquilizer who was on her way when the animal was shot.

“He thinks just because he has a piece of cheap tin on his chest he has the right to do that,” Lane told the Morning Sentinel this week. “Well, he doesn’t. There was no fairness at all for that animal. I knew it was never going to be a good end for that animal.”

‘JUDGMENT CALL’

It’s unusual for police to respond reports of loose livestock, said Robert Schwartz, executive director of the Maine Chiefs of Police Association. More frequently, he said, that responsibility falls to animal control officers.

“I’m not sure there are any real protocols,” Schwartz said. “Obviously you can’t write a policy for everything, and it’s rather unusual that it can happen. It’s certainly a judgment call for the officer. Like anything else police do, they’re granted leeway because of the fact that you have to act immediately.

“With any of these things, you might look back and say, ‘I might have done that differently.’ But when you’re in the line of duty, you have to make a decision. If (the chief) thought it was a danger, you have to take his word for it.”

Bucknam did not respond to follow-up questions on the case Friday, including whether the Skowhegan Police Department has policies in place for responding to loose or dangerous animals or how often such incidents occur.

Somerset County Sheriff Dale Lancaster, whose territory includes Skowhegan, would not comment on Hercules’ case specifically, but he said his department is called occasionally to deal with loose animals.

Maine game wardens also may be called in such cases, according to Lancaster, though Bucknam said they were not called to respond to the Hercules incident because they do not typically handle domestic animals.

“This is rural Maine and animals do get loose,” Lancaster said. “We try and contact the owner and work with them to make sure the animal is safely returned.”

TRANQUILIZERS AN OPTION

Sheriff’s deputies don’t carry tranquilizers, though Stura said they can be a good option for getting loose livestock under control in more urban scenarios.

“Police are first tasked with human safety, so that’s how they’re going to look at it,” Stura said. “My guess is police don’t handle a lot of big livestock, so when they see an animal like that, they get nervous (that) it could do damage to persons or property.”

Portable fence panels that can be attached to a trailer and trying to corral the animal are good options for getting it under control, and most farmers know that, Stura said. Like Knight, he said the best thing to do is stay calm and give the animal space.

“I think it’s police that get anxious,” he said. “They want to stop it immediately, when oftentimes, if you give it some time, you can probably corral the animal or someone can wrangle it.

“It’s not a tiger and they’re usually not vicious, so if you just chill for a minute, you can probably come up with a plan to corral it.”

Rachel Ohm can be contacted at 612-2368

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Twitter: rachel_ohm

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