Livestock theft is real and there’s no glamour to it. It affects owners’ livelihoods and carries a high probability of animal abuse.
The portrayal of cattle rustlers as anti-heroes, in fiction or even non-fiction, does no one any favours. Farmers and ranchers make up only a couple of percentage points within the population and that makes it more difficult to compete with myths and falsehoods spread by activists from organizations with nice-sounding names and hidden agendas, and from errors or odd portrayals in the entertainment field.
And so we come to Yellowstone, a wildly popular series with its third season now available on television. Creator and writer Taylor Sheridan grew up on a minimalist ranch near Cranfills Gap in north-central Texas and no doubt brought some legitimacy to the agricultural side of the project — enough so that it is a big hit in the rural community.
The show doesn’t tidy up cattle and forage production too much for the urban audience, which is good. Obvious errors are fairly limited and include the over-shuffling of animals between pastures in a northern Plains, foothills environment. Maybe things are different in Texas.
And just how much alfalfa or clover might it take in late fall to cause fatal bloat to 500 cows? That is a bit dodgy on the volume side, but hey, it’s kind of believable.
Yellowstone is far better than most entertainment depictions of cattle production and it does demonize cattle rustling to a point. But it also makes it seem like a semi-noble act, depending on who is doing it and why.
Fiction writers try to be accurate in their portrayals of life, which fosters the necessary suspension of disbelief. Reality can be a challenge, especially for television with its high throughput and short turn-around on new material. Unintentional errors can do a lot of damage just the way accuracy can do a lot of good.
As the population shifts to fewer farms and ranches providing a bigger slice of the food and energy pie, the ability to spread fiction about agriculture gets easier. There are fewer folks to dispute it and the general population moves further from a farming reality. Rural-based television and motion pictures are few and far between.
Poaching, whether its wildlife or livestock, has long been a writer’s tool to develop sympathetic antiheros. From taking the king’s game in Robin Hood to the latest video game called Rustler, a medieval Grand Theft Auto cattle and horse kind of experience, the crime of critter-jacking is serious and exceptionally damaging to agriculture and the environment. It undermines farm sustainability and animal welfare efforts.
Rustling is theft and there is nothing sexy or intriguing about it. Entertainment and fiction tend to make it seem a lesser crime than it is.
Last fall, in one of several real livestock thefts, 60 head of cows and calves were taken from the Fairlight area in Saskatchewan’s southeast. In another case, Alberta cattle were found on a cattle operation in central Saskatchewan and two people were charged with trafficking in stolen cattle and causing animals to be in distress.
Livestock theft has been rising in many parts of the word, including Australia, Europe and Africa. Limited statistics are available on actual numbers in Canada, though incidents tend to increase when cattle prices rise.
Greater traceability through micro RFID chipping technology might be one step forward in traceability. Paying for greater rural policing is another. Both must come in parallel with closing down the myth of the rustler as a potential antihero.
Karen Briere, Bruce Dyck, Barb Glen and Mike Raine collaborate in the writing of Western Producer editorials.