It was about 1 a.m. on a dark country road in western Loudoun County when sheriff’s Deputy Tim James arrived at the scene of a violent brawl.
James knew right away that it wasn’t safe for him to get out of his cruiser. He radioed the dispatcher for help and watched through his windshield as the two determined assailants squared off again.
“Texas longhorn bulls,” James said. “They were fighting in the middle of the roadway.”
The incident happened about two years ago, but it has left a lasting impression, he said. James could see a nearby property that was the probable home of the two clashing steers, but the dispatcher did not have an emergency contact number for the address. James couldn’t drive around the bulls to get to the front door himself.
“I had to sit there in the middle of the night with my lights and siren on for 15 minutes to try to wake up the homeowner,” he said.
The bulls’ owner eventually came out, and the animals were returned to their enclosures. But James said the encounter dramatically highlighted the need for a more effective way to quickly connect with owners of escaped livestock.
Last week, the Loudoun Sheriff’s Office, the county Department of Animal Services and the Loudoun Cooperative Extension announced a new program that aims to offer a solution to this problem, one that still occurs regularly as the rapidly developing jurisdiction maintains a large agricultural community.
The new program, Operation: Protect Livestock, will “quickly and safely reunite Loudoun County livestock owners with their lost or wayward animals,” organizers said.
The free program collects emergency contact information, as well as details about the type and number of animals owned, allowing authorities to speedily contact the owner of an animal found wandering in a roadway or on someone else’s property.
The contact information would also be of use in the event of any other emergency or natural disaster, allowing emergency responders to more effectively plan and assist animals in need, officials said.
James said it’s difficult to estimate how often farm animals escape in the county, but it’s a common occurrence.
“Just on my squad alone, I would say that we probably experience a call at a minimum of once a week,” he said.
Callers also frequently contact animal control for sightings of lost livestock, he added.
“For the sheriff’s office, from my experience, the calls are usually for cows and steer. . . . On the animal services side, they tend to see more along the line of horses,” he said. “We have a variety. I also have a goat farm out here that’s a frequent flier, as well.”
Loudoun animal control officials said the department fields about 370 livestock calls per year, for issues that include, in addition to lost animals, complaints of abuse or neglect. Animal control officers are also the primary responders for any livestock rescues needed as the result of accidents, extreme weather or natural disasters, said Adrienne Burton, chief of Loudoun’s animal control division.
With more than 1,400 working farms — averaging 100 acres each, according to county officials — Loudoun has a sizable population of livestock. The county is also home to a vast equine industry, with more than 15,000 horses worth more than $200 million, Burton said.
Although neighboring Prince William County also encompasses suburban and rural territory, concerns about lost livestock are somewhat less prevalent. Suzette Kapp, head caretaker at the Prince William Animal Control Bureau, said the bureau does not keep records of livestock ownership. As the county has become less agricultural, livestock is less of a focus for animal control officers, she said.
Last year, about 40 lost farm animals — mostly poultry — were found in the county, Kapp said, adding that some were returned to their owners and others wound up being adopted.
“Years ago, you’d get a herd of cows escaping,” she said. “Nowadays, it’s more small animals here or there — goats and pigs, maybe sheep.”
Kapp said officers will generally go door-to-door to find a lost animal’s home. But in Loudoun, where stray farm animals are more common, officials are hoping to avoid that exercise.
Less than two weeks after the program was launched, James said, the county’s farming community has responded with enthusiasm.
“We’ve gotten a very positive response and a lot of feedback,” James said, adding that nearly two dozen livestock owners had already signed up.
If authorities respond to calls of escaped livestock near those addresses or fitting the description of those animals, James said, emergency contact information will automatically be available.
“We’re still looking for ways to enhance the program and make it even better,” James said. “We want to get these animals off the road as quickly and safely as possible.”
Livestock owners can enroll in the program by e-mailing firstname.lastname@example.org or calling 703-771-5670, Ext. 6440, and providing the livestock owner’s name, address, home phone number, emergency contact number, livestock location and any distinguishing information about the animals.
The sheriff’s office and Loudoun County Animal Services will be hosting information sessions for Loudoun residents interested in learning more about Operation: Protect Livestock. Organizations that want to schedule a presentation about the program should contact animal control officer Virginia Newsome at email@example.com.
Julie Zauzmer contributed to this report.