Animal rights activists are demanding an investigation into the health of rangeland cattle along Dry Creek Road in northern Tulare County, claiming that the cows are near starvation because penny-pinching ranchers are skimping on hay.
They have posted pictures on Facebook of skinny cattle and urged fellow advocates to call authorities.
But ranchers on Dry Creek Road say they know of no starving cattle. They say they've been feeding hay to their herds for months because the drought has left hillsides brown instead of green.
The ranchers have a counter-charge of their own: in the middle of the night, vandals have cut barbed wire fences on Dry Creek, allowing cattle to escape onto roadways, and they suspect animal rights activists are behind it.
Last week the animal rights campaign went viral, with hundreds of calls coming into the Tulare County District Attorney's Office demanding an investigation.
A photo of a thin cow was posted on the Last Chance for Animals website along with the phone number for the Tulare County District Attorney. Last week, it was re-posted to the timeline of the "Ellen DeGeneres Show" Facebook page, and the District Attorney's Office started getting phone calls.
"Something has to be done," said Troy Mills, campaigns director for Last Chance for Animals, which is based in Los Angeles. "There's no hay present, there's no water."
But local authorities investigating the claims of animal neglect haven't found any starvation.
"No livestock are in immediate danger at this time," said Tammy Weyker, spokeswoman for the Tulare County Health and Human Services Agency, which oversees Tulare County Animal Control.
A large-animal veterinarian from the California Department of Food and Agriculture drove to a ranch on Dry Creek Road with county Animal Control officials and noted that "animals appear to be thin," but there's no evidence of mistreatment or neglect, said Josh Eddy, spokesman for Food and Agriculture.
Jim Sullins, University of California farm adviser for Tulare County, said a bovine expert on his staff drove to Dry Creek and saw no cows in trouble.
"You wouldn't want them any thinner, but they're not starving," he said.
Hay is fed to cows when there's no green grass on the hills. But ranchers must consider the cost of hay when managing a herd, he said.
Animal rights activist Jack Carone, spokesman for In Defense of Animals, based in San Rafael, said the cost of feed shouldn't be a factor if cows get as thin as the ones in the pictures that he has seen.
"If I had two cows that looked like that, they'd come and tell me to feed them more or (they would) take them away," he said.
Dry Creek rancher John Dofflemyer said he's been feeding hay to his cows since September to make up for the lack of forage.
"I"ve seen a lot of thin cows," but that doesn't mean they're unhealthy or neglected, he said.
"Here we are trying to deal with a historic drought and now we have to deal with some animal rights people who don't understand animal health," Dofflemyer said.
And even though ranchers do have to consider the price of cattle feed, cattle are the source of a rancher's livelihood, he said.
"Nobody is more concerned than the owner of the cow. A cow is worth $1,000, and a calf $500. There's money there."
Meanwhile, Dry Creek rancher Aaron Elliott said he's had his fences cut by vandals 12 times in the past two weeks. Several cows escaped, but were rounded up. He suspects someone with ties to an animal rights group did it.
"They are doing it at night," he said.
The sheriff's department advised him to take photos and promised to patrol more often at night, he said.
The road near several ranches have large orange arrows painted on it, which the ranchers believe was done by animal rights advocates to show where they spotted skinny cattle.
Frank Ainley Jr., a lifelong rancher, said his fence was cut in two places and the gates left open and vandalized.
"I think animal rights people did it," he said, noting that the damage was precise and required extra work to repair. "I have no proof, but that's what I think."
Tulare County Supervisor Allen Ishida, whose district includes Dry Creek Drive, said he fears that an innocent motorist could hit a cow and be hurt or killed.
"If we catch them, we're going to put them in jail," he said.
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