Previously seized cattle have been returned to owners.

–by KATRINA HUFFSTUTLER | Texas & Southwestern Cattle Raisers Association

When Darrell Franke, an 81-year-old rancher, died in January, he left about 100 head of cattle and the land they ran on to Jorge and San Juanita Padilla. The couple had worked for Franke for many years, helping care for his land and livestock in Goliad County, Texas.

The only problem? Franke’s children thought they, not the Padillas, should inherit it. Contested wills are nothing new, but what happened during the probate trial left area ranchers deeply disturbed — and spurred Texas & Southwestern Cattle Raisers Association to step in.

According to Jim Bradbury, an attorney who represents the association, Franke’s children and the local constable began a campaign to seize the cattle, citing poor body condition scores. Others disagreed with the assessment, saying the cattle looked typical of those that had been through a drought and an unprecedented winter storm.

The complainant, who is also is a local constable, joining property owner to the Franke property and related to Franke’s children, asked another local constable to join up with an associate of theirs from Brazoria County in contacting the Houston Humane Society.

Together, they were successful. The local judge issued a warrant for the seizure of the animals. But the cattle weren’t sent to a nearby ranch — they were put in the care and custody of the Houston Humane Society. It was not only an interesting choice based on the type of animals involved, but also because Houston is more than 150 miles to the northeast of Goliad. And, despite the claims that this was in the animals’ best interest, cows and still-nursing calves were separated by authorities.

“So, they round up these animals and haul them off to a secure and unknown location,” Bradbury explains. “Now the Padillas, the rightful owners of these animals, don’t know where they’re at. We don’t know where they’re at. Nobody knows where they’re at, except for the humane society.”

When local ranchers caught wind of what had happened, they reached out to Texas & Southwestern Cattle Raisers Association. While the association couldn’t take a position in the formal legal case, members did want to express their concerns about the process that took place.

In a letter to the judge who presided over the case, the association’s CEO and Executive Vice President Jason Skaggs wrote, “Based on experiences and other situations involving TSCRA members from across the state of Texas, the immediate seizure of livestock is almost unheard of. Immediate seizure without notice should be the most extreme remedy used only when no other alternatives exist. Here it appears that no other alternatives were explored.

“While TSCRA cannot determine that the owner was ever issued any caution, concern or warning by the county prior to the immediate seizure, if animal health and well-being is the primary interest of the county in seeking this order, TSCRA believes the most basic aspects of due process require prior notice and warning to the owners that the county contends the livestock are being mismanaged. Had the county done so, local veterinarians or other animal and range science resources should have been consulted. At a minimum, a local large animal veterinarian should be asked to assess the animals.

“From TSCRA’s review of the publicly available materials, it appears the matter was initiated at the suggestion of an interest group from Houston. It is TSCRA’s understanding this interest group also provided the veterinarian who opined on the facts in the affidavit and that the affidavit itself suggested the interest group itself be placed in control of the animals.”

Bradbury says in a hearing the next day, the judge told the Padillas they would have to file a bond of $72,000 if they wanted to appeal to the court’s ruling. The local ranching community came together, pooled their money to help the Padillas, and paid to start the appeal process and hire Joe Glenn Kahla, an attorney from Jasper, Texas. Bradbury helped advise the counsel and prepare for what he called a “lightning-fast turnaround.”

Through their research, the team of attorneys and ranchers discovered the constable had asked an adjoining county to supply a drone and a technician. “And that person came over, and I think flew four or five hours of visual observation to locate the cattle and observe the pasture and feed conditions with no warrant,” Bradbury says. That was a turning point.

Bradbury explains they investigated statutes that set out the limited circumstances under which a drone can be used, absent a warrant. In the hearing, Kahla was able to get the constable to admit she never applied for a warrant, and using the drone didn’t fall into the purposes set out in statute for use of drone footage.

“Once that was admitted, he moved the judge to dismiss, and then the judge did,” he says. “Much to our delight, the cattle were returned, and the county was ordered to pay fees to the Padillas.”

John Zacek, a Texas & Southwestern Cattle Raisers Association director, and rancher from Victoria said the court case never even went far enough for the Padilla’s lawyer to produce witnesses there to testify on their behalf. The judge simply threw the case out. He says it was imperative the association get involved in this case, because an unfavorable outcome would have had far-reaching implications. A different precedent could have been used against cattle raisers across the U.S. But also, Zacek says, “it’s just what the association is all about.”

“When times are tough in our industry, our members come together to lend a helping hand,” he says. “We give a hand up, not a handout.” He says, regardless of the positive outcome, the case could’ve been handled so much better.

“The court’s ruling to have the cattle returned to Goliad County and to their owner’s possession was a great day for the ranching industry,” Zacek says. “[But still] there simply was a strong feeling among many area ranchers that this issue could have very easily been resolved locally without having to incur the hefty expenses and hauling of these cattle over 120 miles, thus stressing the cattle even further.”

Bradbury urges cattlemen to take note of this case, even if they think it could never happen to them. “This wasn’t just a case of a family dispute and local politics coming together,” he says. “Something larger was at play, and that’s the policy goals of organizations seeking to end animal agriculture and our way of life.”