Danville Express

Newsfront - July 13, 2007

Did goats need to die?

Family questions handling of goat crash

by Natalie O'Neill

A distraught Danville woman and her family are questioning the San Rafael Police Department's decision to keep hundreds of goats pent up in a semi-truck after it tipped over last week.

Two hundred and forty-three goats died in the accident Friday, July 6. Most of them suffocated unnecessarily from being shut inside the vehicle after it overturned, said Laura Vaughn, a Danville resident.

"It's an unnecessary loss. It could have been prevented," said Vaughn, who helps out at her mother's Orinda-based family business, Goats R Us.

The big rig was transporting about 400 of the company's animals - including some herding dogs - to Mill Valley when it toppled over on Kerner Boulevard, a road removed from the freeway in San Rafael. Some of the goats were crushed on impact by a four-tier metal shelving unit and many were trampled and smothered by other goats.

"It was the most horrible thing I've ever seen," said owner Terri Oyarzun, Vaughn's mother. "They are all my babies - they each have their own personality."

Officers who arrived on the scene felt securing the vehicle and not allowing goats to flee the truck was the best public safety decision, said Margo Rohrbacher, San Rafael Police Department spokeswoman.

When police arrived they noticed the vehicle was leaking fluid, that several goats were roaming free in nearby streets - and officers needed to first make sure the humans were OK, Rohrbacher said.

"The goats were running into traffic and could have caused a safety problem for traffic and themselves," she said.

But the accident occurred in an industrial area of San Rafael, with nearby parking lots and the goats were not a traffic threat, Vaughn and Oyarzun said.

The herding dogs could have easily kept the goats under control, she explained. When Oyarzun tried to tell this to the police, they were not receptive, she recalled.

"It's absurd. They should have been released immediately," she said.

The goats, which were used for weed abatement and sometimes nibbled on Danville hillsides, could be heard screaming in the minutes after the crash.

In an attempt to help remove the remaining goats from the trailer, a bystander suffered head injuries from being struck by a metal door. This was also a concern for the police, Rohrbacher said.

"This was all happening simultaneously," she explained.

Police arrived about five minutes after the crash, followed by the fire department, public works and the Humane Society. Humane Society workers backed their vehicle up against the big rig and managed to transfer and save 157 goats.

The Humane Society workers were the heroes of the day, Vaughn said.

Oyarzun has years of experience with livestock and knew far more about farm animals than the police on scene, Vaughn said.

Taking this into account, the family says the police department should have listened to her suggestion to free the goats. Instead, an emotional Oyarzun was restrained by police, after attempting to find her driver in the chaotic scene.

Vaughn speculated that over 200 of the goats that died could have been saved, had the doors been opened.

"Nowhere near 243 would have been killed," she said. "If they thought vehicles would hit them, they should have shut down the road."

San Rafael Police Department officials, however, said most of the goats died within the first five minutes - before they arrived.

The department, which largely patrols the urban and suburban area of Marin County, very rarely comes in contact with livestock cases, said Rohrbacher. When things like this do happen, officers have to make quick judgment calls on a case-by-case basis, she said.

Goats R Us still maintains 6,500 goats and it suffered about $36,400 in losses from the goats who were killed. Oyarzun, who bottle-fed some of the animals when they were babies and has even kept beloved older goats on oxygen tanks, said the loss was far more emotional than financial.

"It's not about the money," she said. "I would have paid five times as much not to have it happen."

The vehicle was operated by a 62-year-old driver with a valid commercial driver's license. The cause of the accident is now under investigation by the San Rafael Police Department and should be closed by next week. According to the police, speed was a likely factor.

Vaughn, on the other hand, says this particular driver was notorious for driving too slowly if anything. She suspects a blown tire and the shifting of the goats' weight played a role.

In moving vehicles, goats become fearful when their standing position is disturbed or their footing becomes unstable. When transporting livestock, it's recommended that drivers accelerate slowly and smoothly, plan for necessary braking, and drive cautiously around approaching road bumps.

In the days since the accident, Vaughn and her mother say they have received a warm outpouring of support from Danville residents and concerned animal lovers across the East Bay.

The family has received donations and plans to start a foundation called "243," in remembrance of the goats that died.

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