Cow on the Lam; Heifer Eludes Authorities For Six Hours

January 5, 2006 (Great Falls Tribune)

It was like a scene from The Fugitive, only with four legs.

The escapee fled from captors and police for more than eight miles, running in and out of traffic, giving police the slip by jumping in front of a moving train and braving the strong, icy currents of the Missouri River.

But this was no Dr. Richard Kimball on the run; it was a black 1,200-pound heifer that had escaped a slaughterhouse.

The desperate animal eluded police, veterinarians, animal control officers, media, humane society and slaughterhouse workers for more than six hours as it lead them on a pursuit across the city, risking her life on several occasions to keep new-found freedom.

The never-say-die heifer’s escape is one of a string of several animal escapes from Mickey’s Packing Plant.

The chase started at around 5 a.m. Thursday morning, when the heifer jumped a gate at Mickey’s on Gibson Flats Road, southwest of the city. She then ran up a loading chute ramp and leaped for freedom.

Del Morris, a manager at Mickey’s said he sicced his dog on the heifer, hoping to turn the fleeing animal around, but to no avail.

"She wanted out pretty bad," Morris said. "Nothing was going to stop her."

From there, the heifer ran for the city near the Mountain View area and trekked to the intersection of 7th Street South and 10th Avenue South.

At about 9:26 a.m., police began receiving calls of a cow in the middle of the intersection causing traffic problems.

"We thought, `yeah right, a cow in the middle of town,’" said Officer Corey Reeves. "It was just hanging out in the middle of the road."

Police caught up with the escapee in the 500 block of 8th Avenue South and wedged her between a stock trailer and a fence.

But the heifer barreled through the fence and fled westbound toward River Drive.

Her flight was not without peril. Near the intersection of 2nd Avenue South and 8th Street South, the heifer narrowly dodged a Chevrolet Suburban.

It was a near miss, but not the last, Reeves said.

With police in hot pursuit, the animal sped toward the railroad tracks, Reeves said.

Then they saw the train.

The panicked cow darted across the path of the oncoming locomotive, narrowly missing it and giving police another brief slip.

She then sped across River Drive, near MacKenzie River Pizza Co., where she was nearly run down by a semi.

"By that time, it was a madhouse," Reeves said. "People were coming out of the woodwork to see."

After her trio of near-death experiences, the animal ran into Oddfellows Park. Police were following the animal closely, but trying not to spook it.

Hemmed in by police, animal control officers and slaughterhouse workers, the bovine dove into Broadwater Bay.

As she swam to the west bank of the Missouri, Reeves said, she sank lower in the water, like she was running out of steam and getting swept downstream with the current.

But the cow found a sandbar near the river’s west bank and walked to shore.

"She’s lucky," Reeves said as he sat in his vehicle, watching the cow pull itself to the other side.

A less fortunate bovine, dubbed “Bob,” made headlines in 2004 when his body beached on a sandbar in the same area, creating a mighty stench.

No one knows his life story, or how he came to be a carcass in the river.

But back to our chase.

As police scrambled to head off the cow on the west side of the river, a veterinarian rushed to the scene to administer tranquilizers.

Reaching the shore, the heifer ran across Bay Drive to the railroad tracks.

She turned north and followed the tracks for a while, eventually becoming cornered at a chain link fence near Central Ave. and Interstate 15.

Breathing heavily and foaming at the mouth, the animal juked an approaching animal control officer and, like a skilled running back, turned on the speed and ran through the perimeter set up by officials.

"He’s determined," Reeves said.

The chase finally began to slow when the cow ran to the end of 2nd Avenue S.W. where she came up against several strong fences, including one separating the street from Interstate 15.

Dr. Jennifer Evans of Big Sky Medical Center arrived at the scene with a tranquilizer gun and shot it once with a dart.

It had little effect.

After three darts, the heifer showed no sign of going down. Instead, workers created a makeshift pen with metal panels that led to the stock trailer.

After more than six hours, eight miles, more than a dozen pursuers, three tranquilizer darts and numerous near-misses, the heifer was corralled and walked into the stock trailer at 11:45 a.m.

"It covered some ground," Reeves said. "She did make one heck of a journey."

Reeves said police were authorized to use deadly force on the animal, but only as a last resort.

"Had there been an imminent threat to anybody, we would have shot," Reeves said. "But we understand it was worth a significant amount of money."

Morris, the Mickey’s manager, estimated at 95 cents per-pound the heifer was worth around $1,140.

This isn’t the first time an animal has escaped from the packing plant.

In 2003 three buffalo escaped from Mickey’s, thundered down 10th Avenue South before being shot. In 2001, a lamb escaped from the packing plant and a few years earlier another buffalo escaped from the plant and was recaptured.

Reeves said plant managers told police the company was under new ownership and working to correct the animal escape problems.

In some cases of repeat offenses, Reeves said, the person can be charged financially for officers’ time and efforts, but it would be up to police administration officials to determine that.

There were horses ready to be deployed, Morris said, but once the cow went into the city limits, it was too dangerous.

"I was totally amazed she was able to swim the river," Morris said.

Morris said the heifer would be taken back to Mickey’s, put in a pen (one with larger fences) and be fed and watered.

As for the fate of the tenacious heifer, it’s still up in the air.

"Everybody has emotions about the animals," Morris said. "We care a great deal for her. There will definitely be discussions over it. There have been some comments over whether she deserves to live."

Officer Aaron Hartnell, one of the officers who responded, said five officers were involved in the chase.

"It was odd," he said. "I’m just glad no one got hurt and all ended well. In the end, that’s all we ask for."

[follow-up stories here and here about her eventual settlement in a sanctuary]