When the Skowhegan police chief recently chased a loose bull through town and fatally shot it, angering the farmer who owned the animal and raising questions about the response, he was taking what a pair of livestock experts say was unnecessarily risky action.

Even so, law enforcement officials say there are no detailed protocols for dealing with such situations involving livestock and that public safety needs to be the top priority.

Hercules, a 600-pound bull, escaped from his trailer, broke through fences and eluded Skowhegan police for more than an hour Monday before being shot and falling dead into the Kennebec River, where the body floated downstream. Contributed photo

Livestock escaping in rural Maine is nothing new, but it’s less common for police to be called on to address the problem.

And a chase like the one that unfolded in Skowhegan last week is not necessarily the best way to handle the situation, according to two livestock experts.

“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, police with a public address system pursued the loose bull, named Hercules, and warned pedestrians to get out of the way as they chased the animal through two major intersections, across a bridge, and through downtown Skowhegan streets.

The bull, recently purchased by its owner for $840 at a Fairfield auction house, ultimately ended up swimming across the Kennebec River and struggling to make it up the river bank before the police chief shot it fatally and it floated downstream.

The animal’s fate devastated its owner and sparked outrage from some local farmers, though Skowhegan police Chief David Bucknam said he stands by the decision to shoot Hercules fatally, saying he 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 heeding that advice, especially after the animal has broken through fences.

Hercules was found about 1.5 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, according to Bucknam. 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 extension 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 the animal 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, one of the animal’s owners 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 stands with his dairy cows at Shady Lane Farm in New Vineyard on Wednesday. Lane witnessed a bull escaping from a transport trailer in Skowhegan on Monday, running through town to the Kennebec River. He said it should not have been shot. Staff photo by Michael G. Seamans

Martin Lane, a farmer who witnessed the chase, said he told the chief his nephew was on the way with ropes to harness the bull and to wait before shooting, 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 earlier 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.”

Reports of loose livestock do happen occasionally, but it’s unusual for police to respond, according to 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.”

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 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 — 612-2368

[email protected]

Twitter: @rachel_ohm

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