My cousin's mule, Festus, was Humboldt County's most wanted creature on four legs in the summer of 1995. For Festus had eaten close to $60,000 in outdoor cannabis, and a neighbor was prepared to shoot him on sight. So he was dispatched several ridges away to my family's ranch, where he would finish his days among our mares and sheep, a sort of witness protection program. They say good fences make good neighbors, and this is doubly so in marijuana country.
At a recent meeting of the Humboldt Del Norte California Cattlemen's Association, Sheriff Mike Downey announced that he had heard numerous concerns by local ranchers regarding dog attacks on stock. "I [believe] these dog attacks are the result of the unregulated industry of illegal marijuana cultivation by growers who maintain these dogs to protect their grow sites," he added in a press release last week, which cited a spike in the number of dog attacks.
Growing up in Honeydew in the '80s and '90s, I watched the taste in guard dogs progress, from Dobermans and German Shepherds to Rottweilers and Akitas, to Chow Chows and the now-ubiquitous pitbulls. For the most part, they were just familiar sights barking from the backs of trucks in the Honeydew Country Store parking lot, but occasionally they would show up on our road. Lone dogs are an inconvenience. Sometimes they'll pick a fight with your cowdogs or chase your chickens. If you're lucky, they'll have a tag with a phone number, and you can cajole them into your own truck and take them back to their owners. Back in the '80s, you could get on the CB radio and put out the call to the whole ridge. But dogs roaming in pairs or packs are a bigger challenge, especially when their owners are inattentive. They don't understand property lines and are rarely trained in livestock etiquette. Dogs are pack hunters; they will travel for miles chasing deer and return multiple times to bother cattle and sheep. Sometimes they do it because they're hungry; more often they do it because it's fun.
If livestock owners catch a dog in the act of chasing or mauling their stock, they're legally allowed to shoot the animal. It's not a pleasant task. You'd have to search far and wide for a rancher who doesn't love the tail-wagging set, or who relishes telling his neighbors he has had to kill their best friend. Although Downey characterizes the dogs responsible for attacks as "extremely dangerous," starving, slavering cartel hounds are the exception rather than the rule.
But until you've woken up in the middle of the night to barking and found half of your lambs with their throats and stomachs ripped open, or a pregnant cow that was harassed until she collapsed and miscarried her calf, or put down a steer whose ears were torn off and nose bitten to ribbons, you won't understand why most of us pick up the gun before we pick up the phone. And after the shots are fired, the skittish herd brought in and checked for injuries, the pregnant among them monitored to see if they'll bring their calves to term or miscarry from shock, it's time to try and recoup our loss.
Under California law, livestock owners are due twice the amount of the liquidated value of any animal killed by dogs, or twice the amount of the veterinary bill to treat a surviving animal. But the chances of actually receiving compensation from a dog's owner are dubious. It's one thing to shoot your neighbor's dog. It's another thing to shoot your neighbor's dog then demand he or she pay you a few thousand dollars. Technically, the sheriff's office is responsible for responding to calls of dogs harassing or killing livestock, but it has historically been difficult to get them to respond to the rural corners of the county, not to mention put their limited resources into investigating these crimes. Downey has pledged to take a more "aggressive stance," on dog attacks, but actually getting the money due means taking neighbors to civil court.
CB radios have given way to cell phones in rural Humboldt, but most of us still prefer to settle our disagreements the old-fashioned way, with a talk, a handshake and a better fence. Even if you don't get along with your neighbors, calling the cops in marijuana country is still risky business. So until a better solution is found, or legalization brings an end to covert grows and the roaming pitbulls that protect them, many ranchers may stick with educating their neighbors on how to keep their dogs at home, or resort to more creative means. At least one has presented his neighbors with some McNab cowdog pups, in the hopes that they'll come into fashion.