Livestock on the road

—Kate Feiffer

Dear Nicole:

What do you do when you encounter loose livestock in the road and its owners are chasing it down? Do you get out of your car and help herd them? Do you stay in the car and wait? Do you try to get by as quick as possible and continue on your way?

Confidentially yours,

Cowed by Cows

Dear Cowed:

Good pseudonym, my friend: Yes, you should be cowed by cows. If it’s cows, stay in the car! And by the way: THANK YOU for asking a question that is not about politics.

I grew up with goats, horses, and chickens, but that was many years ago, so I asked some folks with more recent exposure to this issue, starting with Becky Cournoyer of West Tisbury. She is the granddaughter of farmers and equestrians, and sometime hostess of other people’s cattle. She weighs in thus:

“If the owner is there, I’d ask if they would like me to help. Usually, the owners will handle the livestock themselves, and if a passerby is not familiar with handling large animals, there is a huge risk of injury. If the owner isn’t there, the driver should remain in the car, notify animal control through the nonemergency line of the Communications Center — 508-693-1212 — and patiently wait for said livestock to pass. Livestock can charge at people if freaked out. Even goats or pigs can injure folks. Unless it’s chickens … they will run like hell. Geese, on the other hand, can attack.” (Thank you, Becky!)

I think this means it’s OK to get out and try to herd the chickens, as long as you realize ahead of time that your attempt is doomed to fail. Otherwise, with most conventional livestock, stay put and — if the owner has not already done so — let the Animal Control Officer know what’s up.

Besides the bit about the chickens, there are some variations to this. The most endemic one these days is horses.

Horses are (generally) trained to interact sensibly with humans. They’re unlikely to charge, but more likely to hurt themselves if they’re spooked. Put on your car blinkers to stop other traffic (and call animal control if the owner is not around). Then, if the horses seem calm enough AND THE OWNER IS PRESENT AND WANTS YOUR HELP, get out of your car and try to catch them with the help of any other drivers who might be around. “Catching” them can consist of simply surrounding them with enough human bodies (at a safe distance) that they won’t try to escape. Make sure each horse can see you clearly — don’t stand or walk behind it, as it could kick. Horses can sense fear, and it makes them antsy, so be honest: If you’re not familiar with handling horses and the thought of being near a thousand-pound animal makes you dizzy, maybe just stay in the car.

Obviously if the horse seems panicked, keep your distance even if that means letting it escape. A truly distressed horse will rear up and could strike out at a person within reach. (Please note that this is far, far likelier to happen in Deadwood than on Martha’s Vineyard.)

Finally, consider the alpaca. (My childhood self giggles with gleeful disbelief that I just wrote that sentence.) As well as Island Alpaca Farm in the middle of the Island, a number of property owners sport the odd alpaca (or llama) herd. Alpacas are friendly but skittish, nimbler at escape than horses, and the least likely of any livestock to endanger you.

As with horses, put on your blinkers to stop traffic, and get out of the car. Every time I have encountered a loose alpaca (which is freakishly often, given the alpaca-to-human ratio on the Island), their owners are already trying to corral them, usually with a bucket of feed to rattle for their attention. “With alpacas, many hands are key,” says alpaca owner Geraldine Brooks. “You sort of gently walk them home, one person in front and as many as possible making a barrier behind.”

(Speaking from personal experience, I don’t recommend doing this while wearing a bike helmet. Alpacas seem to have an atavistic response to being approached by beings with large shiny heads. Perhaps it’s a leftover instinct from when their original owners, the Inca, were enslaved by shiny-headed aliens and forced to build Machu Picchu.)

Prudence Fisher, the animal control officer for West Tisbury, emphasizes that while animal owners will often welcome the help of passersby (especially seasoned ones), it is unwise to attempt to corral large animals unassisted, unless it’s something you do on a regular basis anyhow. Should you find yourself in the unlikely position of needing to herd livestock, she recommends luring them with some pebbles tossed into any plastic or hard rubber container. “To them, that sound means food, and it will get their attention — they will follow you, thinking you have food. My first morning on the job, I had cows following me down North Road with a bucket of rocks.”

If the thought of loose livestock on the road fills you with such anxiety that you’re afraid to drive to the Post Office, you can try a variation of the bring-an-umbrella-to-avoid-rain trick. A friend of mine encountered loose animals often enough that she began to carry a universal halter in her car to be better prepared. Since she’s had the halter, she has never once had need of it.

I believe they are available at SBS.

That’s my take.


Bemused readers ask novelist Nicole Galland for her take on navigating the precarious social landscape that comes with living on the Vineyard. Nicole, who grew up in West Tisbury, is known locally as the co-founder of Shakespeare for the Masses at the Vineyard Playhouse, and is the author of “I, Iago.” Her combined knowledge of both this Island and the world’s greatest melodramas compels her to help prevent unnecessary tragedy wherever possible. Trying to untangle a messy Island ethics or etiquette question? Send it to