By Laura Northrup
Cattle rustling is an old-timey regional term for one of the oldest crimes in human civilization: walking off with someone else’s livestock. It turns out that when animals have been bred to be docile and to trust humans, it’s not hard to drive off with them. Auction houses don’t ask for proof that the cattle you’re selling are actually yours, there are no standardized ear tags, and the unwitting public ends up eating the evidence.
NPR’s Planet Money recently shadowed one of the brave law enforcement officers fighting the cattle rustling menace, special agent in charge Jerry Flowers of the Oklahoma Department of Agriculture. He wears a white cowboy hat, jeans, and a fabulous moustache, and speaks using confusing yet folksy animal metaphors.
Cattle theft is on the rise in Oklahoma, which is surprising, because it is not 1872. The Department of Agriculture investigators have been working hard to stop the problem: according to Agent Flowers, they were “busier than a one legged Bobcat covering up his own crap on a frozen pond.”
The tools of the trade are simple: you might need some bolt cutters to cut locks and get past fences, a trailer for transporting large animals, a bucket of food, and some knowledge of how to handle cattle. That’s about it. Since ear tags, brands, tattoos, or microchips aren’t mandatory, there’s no way to definitively trace one animal throughout its life. The thieves (not “alleged” thieves–they confessed within half an hour) in this story were able to simply drop off their ill-gotten bovines at the local auction house, then return to pick up their money. They were caught only because the numbers and types of cattle they dropped off at the auction house matched up with reported thefts in the area. They were caught after stealing three cattle from a large ranch, where no one had even noticed that they were missing yet.
One victim did notice that his cattle were missing, because they were all stolen at once. He has a regular job at Walmart, and raises cattle as an investment. All nine animals were stolen, and Planet Money doesn’t specify whether they were insured.