The great escape might occur late at night, while you’re fast asleep. Or the afternoon you drive the youngsters to town for their dentist appointments. Or the very week your husband takes a few days off to go hunting or fishing.
Chances are you may not even be aware that an escape has occurred until the following morning, when you go out to feed the livestock. “Wait a minute,” you think to yourself, “there’s something wrong here. We’re supposed to have five chickens/cows/goats/horses/pigs/sheep, and I only see three!”
Before you call the sheriff’s office to report rustlers in the neighborhood, you might want to check for signs of a breakout. Because if there’s a way to escape the confines of a pasture, pen or corral, livestock will find it.
Unlike prison convicts, livestock probably don’t spend months planning a jailbreak. More likely, their actions are motivated by boredom or curiosity. Goats, for example, generally aren’t looking for a life on the lam, but they do seem to enjoy the challenge of climbing or jumping a 5-foot fence. Give a goat a launching pad, and it can take off like a bottle rocket.
Cows universally believe the grass on the other side of the fence is sweeter, lusher and more desirable than anything growing in their own pasture. You’ve probably seen cows spend day after day stretching their heads through strands of barbed wire or between fence rails in an effort to reach one more alluring tuft of grass.
The problem, of course, begins when the force of their weight eventually weakens a fence post or pulls the staple nails loose, creating a doorway to a buffet of unimaginable delicacy. That’s when you may find your herd happily grazing in your flower bed or munching their way through the neighbor’s corn or alfalfa field.
Unlike cows, horses are motivated less by their appetite than by the challenge of outsmarting their owners. Horses are opportunists that will study how you latch the gate, then figure out how to unlatch it the minute your back is turned. My mother used to tell a story about Maude, one of her father’s plow horses, who discovered how to unlatch the corral gate. Each evening, after the field work was done and the horses turned into the corral, Maude would confidently open the gate and lead the rest of the herd down to the creek.
Blessed with powerful snouts, pigs have the unique ability to root under almost any fence that isn’t built on a concrete foundation. But wait, you say, even if a pig finds a way out of its pen, where’s it going to go? Shopping at Walmart? Well, no, but according to state game and fish experts, there are plenty of formerly domestic pigs among the more than a million feral pigs that presently live in the wild in this country.
Unless they’re threatened by a predator, sheep are less likely to break out of their confines than most other types of livestock. Watch out, though, if a coyote or a pack of dogs comes after them. A flock of frightened sheep can literally stampede through a fence in a desperate attempt at escape.
While chickens are mostly happy to stay close to home, I’ve seen plenty of apparently homeless chickens roaming around Grand Cayman Island in the Car-ibbean. According to the locals, the chickens have no owners. Brightly colored hens with a clutch of chicks wander under the tables of outdoor restaurants, while roosters cross the roads in defiance of local traffic laws. The fearless fowl even mingle with the cruise ship tourists prowling through the downtown shops.
A couple of years ago, my wife and I were in downtown Georgetown, the capital of Grand Cayman, when we decided to stop for a cold drink at an umbrella table in front of a popular fast-food franchise. A little brown hen happily pecked at the crumbs around our feet, totally unaware that she was lunching in front of a Kentucky Fried Chicken outlet!
I have no doubt my chickens – and yours – would happily fly the coop to join that little brown hen. Ah, the joys of living a coop-less life! Lucky for us, coop-less chickens aren’t the norm in this country, so should the birds be on the lam, odds are a neighbor will let you know. If it weren’t for all the predators out there, I might sleep a little better knowing my hens are dining at a fried chicken place. In the meantime, I think I’ll just fix the fence.
Jerry Schleicher is a country humorist and cowboy poet from Parkville, Missouri, who shakes his head at the memories of livestock escapes on his place.