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Cattle shooting case goes to court

Mateusz Perkowski

Capital Press

Joel Rice, a psychiatrist from La Grande, Ore., faces several charges of aggravated animal abuse for shooting cattle that had wandered onto his property. Rice wants the criminal charges dismissed because he has paid $47,500 to the cows' owners.

A psychiatrist who shot seven cows in eastern Oregon wants the criminal charges against him dropped because he has paid compensation to the owners.

Dr. Joel Rice, 56, was arraigned Oct. 15 on five counts of first degree aggravated animal abuse, two counts of first degree animal abuse and seven counts of criminal mischief.

During his arrest, Rice admitted shooting the cattle after they had wandered onto his property near La Grande, Ore., in August, according to a court document.

Six of the cows died, while the seventh can’t move one of its legs due to injuries.

The sequence of events that led to the shooting isn't clear from court documents, but Rice's neighbor submitted a letter alleging that cattle had repeatedly trespassed on the property in the past.

The letter also said that Rice received “numerous personal threats” for closing his land to livestock.

An attorney representing Rice has asked for the case against him to be dismissed because he has paid $47,500 in damages to the cattle’s three owners.

The owners — Mark Gomes, Jay Theodore Mudd and Irwin Smutz — also submitted a court document saying they have “received full satisfaction for this injury” and don’t want Rice prosecuted.

Wallowa County District Attorney Mona Williams, who is prosecuting Rice, said she will object to the case being dismissed but declined to elaborate. Though the incident occurred in Union County, prosecutors there have recused themselves from the case due to Rice’s involvement in the county’s drug court.

The shooting may also affect Rice’s license to practice medicine. Doctors who are convicted of felonies or misdemeanors are investigated by the Oregon Medical Board to determine if there’s a problem that might affect their medical judgment, said Randy Day, an investigator for the agency.

“Basically, we have to look for a connection to their practice of medicine,” he said.

Gene Hardy, president of the Union County Farm Bureau, said he wants the criminal case to proceed because it would set a bad precedent for someone as high profile in the county as Rice to go unpunished.

“As far as I’m concerned, there was still a crime committed,” Hardy said, noting that the county’s agricultural community shares this sentiment.

“We still feel strongly he should be prosecuted,” Hardy said. “The bottom line is you just don’t go killing livestock.”

Curtis Martin, president of the Oregon Cattlemen’s Association, said Rice committed a “horrendous act” that should have criminal consequences.

“It shouldn’t be allowed to go away because he paid compensation for it,” Martin said. “From all perspectives, it was a vicious act of retaliation. Animal abuse is something we can’t tolerate.”

Emotions can run hot in disputes over stray cattle, said Rodger Huffman, state brand inspector for the Oregon Department of Agriculture, whose office helps identify such animals.

Huffman pointed to an incident in Wallowa County in 2007 in which a dispute over stray cattle escalated into a shooting that left two men dead. In a 1996 incident, another doctor admitted to shooting cattle that had entered his property in Grant County.

“It does get tempers flaring,” Huffman said. “It can be very frustrating.”

In some cases, the landowners have simply opted to keep the cattle that come onto their pastures, seeing it as means of compensation, he said.

Such adoption is also unlawful, however, Huffman said. “You can’t shoot them and you can’t keep them.”

The problem is complicated because many property owners don’t understand their land designation as it relates to livestock, he said.

In Oregon, some counties are “open range,” in which the land owner is responsible for building fences to keep out livestock. Other counties are “closed range,” in which the livestock owner is responsible for fencing in his animals. Many counties are a patchwork of open range and closed livestock districts.

Historically, all land was open range in Oregon, said Huffman. As cities incorporated, they automatically became closed range.

Counties also eventually began declaring closed livestock districts, and in 1958 the state stepped in as the official recordkeeper of open and closed range areas, he said.

The amount of land in livestock districts — such as the property owned by Rice — has been expanding over time, especially since it’s relatively easy to have property annexed into an existing district, Huffman said.

As more people have moved into the countryside to live in “ranchettes” or hobby farms, they’ve been less tolerant of livestock moseying across their property, he said.

The increased prevalence of high-value crops has also prompted landowners to want stray cattle off their land, Huffman said. “The damage can mount so significantly, quick.”



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