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Cow and dog thieves beware: Oklahoma is out to punish you

Worried that cattle rustling is on the rise, lawmakers are cracking down on animal thieves. (AP Photo/Daily Gazette, Connie Jo Discoe)

They’re worth thousands of dollars each, and you can take them straight off the side of the road. All you need is a handful of treats, and maybe some sweet talk.

As beef prices hover at record highs, lawmakers in Oklahoma are going to great lengths to combat cattle theft. This week, two related Senate bills made it out of committee: SB 299 would more harshly punish animal thieves, and SB 492 would allow people to shoot down drones without getting sued in civil court.

The drone law first: Sen. Ralph Shortey (R) claimed on Tuesday that cattle rustlers are using drones to spy on herds, the Tulsa World reports. Shortey wants to give ranchers the right to shoot the baby helicopters down at will. But the bill is written broadly; it would allow any property owner to knock out any drone hovering over their premises.

Members of the judiciary committee wondered if there should be a distinction made between a government drone, a child’s toy helicopter, and a drone that has been conscripted into a cattle theft ring. Regardless, the bill passed the committee 6-4.

Oklahoma lawmakers also want people who steal farm animals to get at minimum five years in jail. Currently in the state, people convicted of cattle theft have a choice. Either they do the time (three to 10 years) or they pay a fine of three times the value of what they stole. The new law would make five to 15 years of prison mandatory, in addition to the fine.

“Harsher punishments and deterrents are needed,” the bill’s co-author, Rep. Scott Biggs (R ) told The Oklahoman.

The law, by the way, would impose mandatory jail time for stealing a dog, sheep, or goat. Thieves would get a minimum of six months in state lockup, in addition to a fine.

In a skeptical article, The Oklahoman noted that the state’s prisons are “massively overcrowded,” and that the governor wants to reduce the number of people locked up for non-violent offenses. But on Monday, the Senate agriculture committee passed the bill 10-0.

Why all the fuss? Cattle rustling has never been more lucrative. In 2014, drought and high feed prices caused the U.S. herd to shrink to a 63-year low. Prices, in turn, shot up to record highs.

In December, Kansas formed a new office to investigate livestock theft. In Texas and Oklahoma, a team of special rangers hunts down thieves.

It’s easy to sell stolen cows, explains Larry Gray, the director of law enforcement for the Texas and Southwestern Cattle Raisers Association. Only a fraction of the nation’s herd is branded; ear tags can be snipped off. Auction houses often have no way of knowing that a cow is stolen property.

“What a lot of people don’t realize is that it’s one of the very few thefts that an individual can commit and get the true market value of what they’re stealing,” Gray said. “They’re a very valuable commodity.”

Gray’s team uses forensics, including DNA testing, to find and identify missing cows. According their latest statistics, his team found or accounted for 3,906 head of cattle in 2014, at an estimated value north of $4 million.

Addiction may motivate some of the crimes. “A lot of the suspects we apprehend have a drug habit, usually methamphetamines, crack cocaine—some drug of that nature,” Gray said. “They’re stealing this cattle to support that habit.”

In 2009, Texas passed a law making cattle theft a third-degree felony. Stealing just a single steer can mean two to 10 years in prison and up to a $10,000 fine. Gray believes that stricter sentencing will help cut down on repeat offenses.