It was around 7:30 a.m. Tuesday when Mike Brown got a call from a neighbor about his cows.

Brown, the owner of Meadowbrook Farm on Stanley Hill Road in China, discovered someone had vandalized his gates a short while ago that morning and let his cows out of their holding pen. The cows then made their way out onto the road.

“We’ve never had anything like this happen before,” Brown said Thursday afternoon as his cattle grazed back in their holding pen. While the cows meandered around the dwindling sunlight, Brown pointed to the clasp that had been broken. It was chained shut again after both gates had been found wide open.

Brown’s farm has 45 Black Angus cows, and he said when he got to the farm, he discovered about 18 of the full-sized adult females had gotten out, as well as 15 of the young stock. The trouble was, most of the cows had made their way out of the farm and onto the road. Brown, who works at Johnny’s Selected Seeds in Winslow, said he was able to respond right away to his cows because he wasn’t working that day, and they probably had been out for about 15 minutes before he got there.

“No one got hurt, but there was a lot of potential,” Brown said.

Brown said it took about 45 minutes to an hour to get the cattle back into their pens. The bigger problem, he said, is that whoever did it put the cows in danger. One gate clasp had been broken, and two others were removed. The farm is Animal Welfare Approved, Brown said, meaning the farm is audited and certified that it treats the animals in a humane fashion.

He said putting the cows in danger by releasing them was definitely not humane.

“I’m not sure what the purpose is,” he said of the vandalism.

The incident at Brown’s farm was just one of a handful of recent bovine-related acts of vandalism. A short distance away on Maple Ridge Road, a padlock on a cattle fence at the McPherson Farm was discovered broken. And two recent incidents in Clinton also have garnered a lot of attention.

One of those incidents, in which hundreds of cows were released from a large Clinton dairy farm, attracted the attention of the FBI, which offered its assistance in the investigation in case the incidents were linked to actions of environmental extremists. Representatives from the FBI did not respond Thursday to calls seeking comment.

The Clinton Police Department said the FBI contacted the local agency Wednesday, following news reports that hundreds of dairy cows had been let out of their pen at the Misty Meadows Farm on Mckenney Road. Clinton police Senior Patrol Officer Karl Roy said Thursday he couldn’t recall any recent times when the FBI has offered to help in a Clinton investigation, but he commended their offer as the right thing to do.

“It’s very wise on their part,” Roy said. “Anytime you’re dealing with a crime, you want to have that information early.”

Roy said if the department decides they do want help from the FBI, “all we have to do is ask.”

Deputy Aaron Moody, of the Kennebec County Sheriff’s Office, said there had been no new developments on the China investigation and that his agency had not been contacted by the FBI about this investigation. He did say that a farm in Albion also might have been targeted, though he did not have details Thursday.

ANIMALS IN DANGER

Brown said he has never had any trouble with vandalism on his farm before, saying customers often stop by to see how well the cows are treated. He said he takes the animals’ welfare seriously and wishes rather than putting the animals in danger, the person had just come and had a discussion with him.

“It’s just unfortunate. I wish whoever was doing it would just come and talk to us about their concerns,” he said.

A number of Brown’s cattle had remained in the pen, and Brown said if they had all been in the road, he might not have been able to get them back.

“It was really unsafe,” he said.

At Misty Meadows Farm in Clinton, there were two separate incidents of cows being released in late November, which resulted in the death of one cow. On either the night of Nov. 29 or the early morning of Nov. 30, about 150 cows were released from their holding pens. The cows were discovered by workers and were safely returned to their pens.

But just hours later, an estimated 500 cows were released from their pens. One of those cows — valued at about $2,000 — was killed after falling into a drainage hole and snapping its neck. The rest of the cows were discovered by another group of workers. The Clinton Police Department posted a notice about the incident on Facebook on Dec. 1.

Roy said police think the culprits are juveniles or young adults, but that they have knowledge of farm equipment. At Misty Meadows, a stainless steel cooling tank filled with milk had been shut off. The tanks were turned back on and the milk saved, and it could have been a $10,000 loss. There was other evidence of vandalism at Misty Meadows, as items from a nearby garage had been stolen and a farm tractor window had been broken.

From there, the vandals went to nearby Wright Place Farm, but the damage there was much less significant. No cows were released or injured there.

TERRORISM PROBED

Roy said agents from the FBI called on Wednesday to see if the department had any information about whether an animal rights group or even environmental terrorists were responsible for the incidents.

“And at this time we do not have any information that leads us to think that,” Roy said.

There was no spray paint or propaganda left on the property, which Roy said is usually typical of an organization that wants to bring attention to a cause.

“We’ve told them there’s nothing here in Clinton that suggests it’s terrorism,” Roy said.

Brown’s theory about the person or people responsible for letting his cows out is that it was “someone who cared a little bit” about animals. He bases that theory on the fact that the gates to the interior of the farm had been opened. The pen had another gate that opened right toward the road, but that set had not been tampered with.

He said it could have been “someone concerned about animals used for food consumption.”

But if that was the case, Brown thinks the person likely didn’t know Meadowbrook is an Animal Welfare Approved farm.

“They all have names,” he said, gesturing to the cows behind him. One, standing behind him with a tag on its ear reading “309” is named May. The “09” in the tag means the cow came to the farm in 2009. “It’s not like we don’t care for them.”

STRESS FACTOR

While Clinton and the Kennebec County Sheriff’s Office are exchanging information on the vandalism reports, Roy does not think the incident at Meadowbrook is connected to the events in Clinton. Roy said no other Clinton farms have been targeted and that police have looking at people of interest and a vehicle of interest in the Clinton incidents.

But aside from potential harm to the animals, there is also a human safety factor as well. While Brown’s cattle were not harmed, they were on a public road, where cars pass by. And a collision involving a car and cattle could have been deadly.

Matt Randall, the agricultural compliance supervisor at the Maine Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry, said acts of vandalism at cattle and dairy farms are unusual, but they also pose serious threats to both animals and humans.

“The stress on humans and animals alike can be hard to measure,” Randall said. “Innocent motorists use these roads, and collisions can be detrimental and certainly fatal.”

Randall said the agriculture department doesn’t have financial resources to help the vandalized farms, but the agency can work with farms, as well as law enforcement agencies, to address security. But he said they also ask people to report things that seem out of the ordinary, and to remain vigilant on the roads.

He said while some might consider these acts to be pranks, they can turn into a tragedy quickly. He said the death of the Clinton cow was a prime example of that.

“This is serious,” Randall said. “We would like to see the mystery solved.”

Colin Ellis — 861-9253

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Twitter: @colinoellis