The buzzards led Nick Bursio to his prized calf. He found the body just over a rise in the field, with a bullet hole in its left shoulder, near the heart.
Bursio had heard of animals killed by rustlers for their meat. But not until that May morning had he ever imagined anything so senseless as shooting cattle presumably just to watch them die.
"I had a hollow feeling in my gut, to see that dead calf laying there, with the mother cow bellowing nearby," said the Sonoma County rancher. "I thought, what the hell's going on in this place?"
Authorities are searching for a drive-by shooter who guns down cows as they calmly munch grass in the rolling pastureland 50 miles north of San Francisco. Since February, five cows have been found dead in two counties, shot with small-caliber bullets designed to inflict prolonged pain and suffering.
Nationwide, an increasing number of animal cruelty cases are being reported outside city limits: Horses, cows, goats and other farm animals are being killed, authorities say, often by angry, reckless youths, perhaps acting on dares.
Although there are no statistics on such crimes, newspapers detail scores of cases. Two Texas college students were indicted last fall for slashing a horse's neck before stabbing it in the heart with a broken golf club handle. In Pennsylvania in 2005, three joy-riding men killed a pony named Ted E. Bear that belonged to a 4-year-old boy.
Last year, two Tennessee teens shot and killed 24 cows, many of them pregnant. "They just wanted to see what shooting cattle was like," said Hickman County Sheriff Randal Ward.
California has also seen its share of the rural violence. In addition to the Northern California cattle shootings, Oakland police are investigating the May killing of 15 goats, each shot in the face as they huddled in a portable pen. Officers said residents had called in to report the sound of "babies crying."
Fresno County detectives arrested two groups of teens in 2005 in the shooting of two dozen cows and horses. In 2003, two Sonoma County men used their cars to ram to death a horse named Gentle Song.
Still, the killing of large farm animals garners little attention in the United States, where the loudest outcry is reserved for the killing of suburban pets or other domesticated animals. Recently, pro football quarterback Michael Vick made front-page news, charged in connection with operating a dog-fighting farm.
Although 43 states have passed felony animal cruelty laws, they rarely apply to livestock -- thanks in part to a strong cattleman's lobby -- as long as ranchers follow "accepted husbandry practices."
In California, state law provides some protection for large farm animals, but enforcement varies among counties. As a result, prosecutors in farm cases often settle for convictions on lesser vandalism charges.
"Animals raised commercially for food have little legal protection against cruelty," said Gene Baur, president of Farm Sanctuary, a group that campaigns against cruelty to farm animals. "It speaks to a prejudice against certain animals, not based on a rational assessment of their ability to feel pain but on our intended use for them."
Studies suggest that youths who engage in animal cruelty often commit violent criminal behavior as adults. Among those who preyed on animals before turning on people were mass killers Jeffrey Dahmer, Ted Bundy and Albert DeSalvo, the Boston Strangler.
The random killing of larger animals signals a troubling psychology that experts are only beginning to understand. Even when caught, most youths refuse to talk about their crimes.
"When you do get to talk to kids and ask why they did it, the most common response is that they were bored," said Randall Lockwood, vice president for anti-cruelty initiatives at the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. "They're obviously troubled. Most bored teens shoot hoops or go see movies; they don't go out shooting horses and cows.
"But you're not going to hear them say, 'I'm alienated against society and this is how I'm reaching out,' " he said.
Still, researchers are developing a personality profile of those who kill large animals outside the context of legal hunting. Abusers who target livestock act out of a different motivation than those who pick on smaller creatures, said Mary Lou Randour, national director of human-animal relations for the Humane Society. "Driving around in search of animals to kill is very planned and methodical, which could make it more pathological and dangerous. These animals could be standbys for the real thing: a human being."
In January, a 16-year-old Humboldt County boy was sentenced to 15 years in prison for the killing of a homeless man. Earlier, that same night, the teen fired a dozen shots into a cow, hitting it in the face and eye and cutting off an ear, authorities said.
Such violence preoccupies Cindy Machado, a Marin County Humane Society detective. Combing country roads in her blue animal control truck, she is pursuing four cases involving the killing of cattle in the San Francisco area.
"What kind of coward sneaks out here to put a bullet into these creatures?" she said, motioning to some dairy cows, who watch her warily. "They're big and friendly. They're not moving."
In May, after Bursio found his dead 600-pound Charolais heifer, Machado got on the phone to Fresno County, where detectives had solved a series of farm animal killings in 2005.
She says the cases are similar: "They combine guns and kids and back roads. It's a disaster waiting to happen."
As Craig Allen recalls, the yearling colt just wasn't acting right: It refused to go near the roadside fence at Old English Rancho, a Fresno County thoroughbred farm.
Workers found the creature bleeding from a bullet hole in its buttock. Allen, the manager who is responsible for 600 horses, rushed to check on other yearlings.
It was the start of the most horrible day of his life.
He found another panicked horse shot in the neck, a stream of blood trickling down its chest, and helped lead the wild-eyed animal to the stables. There, several men held the horse still as a veterinarian tried to pass a tracheal tube down its throat.
Within moments, the horse was dead. "He drowned in his own blood," Allen said.
That year, 2005, seven horses were killed in Fresno County, including two fillies that motorists had liked to stop and pet. Several months before the Old English Rancho attack, a rancher found one of his cows lying on its side, kicking its legs in the air, blood pouring out of a gunshot wound in its neck. Another cow was paralyzed. Both had been shot in the back of the head. In all, 16 cows belonging to several ranchers were killed within four months.
Authorities arrested two teens in the cow shootings. One came from a home with 25 guns.
Pat Sample lost eight cattle to the snipers. In court, a judge ordered that the boys apologize, but the rancher refused to hear them. "I told the judge there's something really wrong in our society for kids to act this way," he said. "Why do they do it?"
Not long after making arrests in the cow case, two teenagers were convicted in the horse shootings: a shooter and an accomplice. The 17-year-old shooter maintained his innocence and refused to talk with a court psychologist.
A lawyer for one of the boys says he doesn't understand the motivation in such an attack.
"Rural kids grow up with guns. They shoot squirrels and coyotes as predator control, so the idea of shooting a rifle from a vehicle is not abnormal," said attorney Mark Coleman. "Still, I just cannot fathom the transition it takes to start shooting livestock."
George Kayian, a former Fresno County assistant district attorney who prosecuted all the Central Valley teenagers, said they had too little adult supervision and too much access to guns. "You see something, you shoot it -- and then you drive down the road for a few more laughs," said Kayian, now in private practice. "It's someone else's problem."
Investigators say society is beginning to take a tougher stance on such cruelty. After two college students stabbed a 14-month-old quarter horse named Cowgirl Chic last fall, Texas improved protections for farm animals, creating a legal definition of what constitutes torture that includes inflicting "unjustifiable pain or suffering."
"Most places, you've got to go a long way to be considered cruel to livestock," said Robert Trimble, an attorney for the Texas Humane Legislation Network, a nonprofit group that promotes animal protection laws. "The industry is paranoid that somehow what they do in their routine animal husbandry could be called cruelty. We're working to give these animals some protection."
At Old English Rancho, the same day the yearling died, Allen put down the horse shot in the buttocks because the bullet had entered the horse's abdomen.
A third horse, hit in the shoulder, survived. Said Allen: "We named him 'I'm Bulletproof.' "
One morning in June, Cindy Machado examined a rusted yellow cattle crossing sign along a deserted back road: The steer's image had been shot through the heart. She ran her hand along the jagged exit holes.
Machado thinks the sign was shot recently and that it might be a clue.
In the miles of Marin County grazing land that are now her crime scene, she looks for traces a cow killer may have left behind: a swastika etched into the middle of a road, bashed-in mailboxes, mangled empty beer cans, the shot-up road sign.
She also tries to soothe the nerves of angry local ranchers, one of whom suffered a heart attack after a cow was gunned down in his field.
"Hey, we all lose animals; they die. But these killings are off the charts," said Mike Gale, president of the Marin County Farm Bureau. "They've gotten under the skin of the ranching community here. If they catch these kids, I'm afraid they're going to do something terrible to them."
Machado knows the anger. She once ran a cattle ranch. Cows are more than just walking slabs of beef, she says. You get attached to them, name them.
Photos of the crime scenes decorate the walls of Machado's office. She scours the shoulders of roads, using a metal detector to hunt for spent shell casings.
She brought one rotting calf carcass to the shelter where she works to X-ray it for metal fragments: "It was looking for a needle in a haystack. But we had to try."
Officials have offered a $16,000 reward in the Northern California cattle cases. But so far, it has yielded no leads.
Machado isn't giving up. One afternoon, she leaned out of her patrol truck and offered her card to two girls and a boy who were feeding cattle at their family's ranch. She drove away, observing the teens in her rearview mirror.
"The kids killing these animals are out here somewhere," she said. "I hope we find them soon. They really need help."
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