When Law and Literature Collide

         In my "American West" seminar class I am reading a dozen novels brimming with characters encountering California in the diverse periods of the 1940s to the 21st century- each character with heightened expectations of what this Golden State has to offer; many face despair (think Steinbeck's Grapes of Wrath), and some find fulfillment (perhaps Pearlie in The Story of a Marriage by Andrew Sean Greer).
         One book has drawn my attention more than others, simply because of the presence of horses.   Most literature, art, story, or case with a horse (mentioned even in fleeting passing) invariably captures my attention.  While I could wax poetic about the potency of equine symbolism in the arts, I will instead get right to the law.  In All the Little Live Things a retired couple moved to California from the East Coast, escaping the recent death of their 37 year old son.  They find a five-acre property in the bay area of Northern California, a fertile country property to be enjoyed as their own Eden.  As they begin building their home onsite they have a problem with a particular neighbor at each phase of the house's completion.  Here are excerpts from the retired man's conversation with his neighbor:

"Just now, when we got up to the house, we found your horses in it."
He was really pleased.  "You did?  They got in there, uh?  It sure don't take a horse long to learn..."
"I wonder if we could work out a way to keep them out... wouldn't it be better if you fenced in the land you still own?"
"Well yeah, I guess.  But that'd be a big expense, that much fence."
It struck me that he hadn't admitted his responsibility to keep the horses on his own land.  So instead of making any offer I remarked that the law was different in different states.  Some places you were expected to fence loose stock out, but in California the law said the owner must fence them in.
"'Yeah, is that so?' he said.  'I s'pose.  'I never looked into it.'"
For a while we kept the horses out with barricades... By January we had doors and the house was safe; but in February, when the painters came, there were buckets and jugs to kick over.  One painter came to hate the horses so bad he brought an air pistol to the job and lurked (at five or six dollars an hour, on my time) behind corners and partitions, trying to sting one good.  I never saw him succeed... but neither stone nor air pistols nor barricades kept the horses from bursting into the kitchen patio the night after the concrete was poured.  You can see their footprints out there now.  That time, I went to the trouble of looking up the impounding laws, and if it hadn't been for Ruth [his wife] I'd have caged his wandering brutes and made him pay through the nose to get them back."

And he was right, California has very specific laws as to when your horse gets loose:

16902. Permitting livestock on highway 
A person that owns or controls the possession of any livestock shall not willfully or negligently permit any of the livestock to stray upon, or remain unaccompanied by a person in charge or control of the livestock upon, a public highway, if both sides of the highway are adjoined by property which is separated from the highway by a fence, wall, hedge, sidewalk, curb, lawn, or building.

17003. If no person appears and claims any impounded bovine animal, horse, mule, or burro within five days, the poundkeeper or other pound officer shall so notify the director. Upon receipt of such notice, the director shall take possession of any bovine animal and shall dispose of it pursuant to this chapter.
This section does not authorize any act which violates Section 597 of the Penal Code.

17041. Right to take up; Lien for expenses  (this is the law the retiree was referring to)
Except as provided in Article 5 (commencing with Section 17121) of this chapter, any person that finds any estray domestic animal upon his premises, or upon premises to which he has the right of possession, or upon any highway which is adjacent to such premises, may take up the animal and have a lien for all expenses which are incurred in taking up, keeping, and caring for it.

17042. Confinement of animal; Notice to director 
Any person that takes up an estray animal shall confine it in a secure place, and shall immediately file with the secretary a notice containing all of the following:
(a) A description of the animal seized.
(b) The marks and brands, if any.
(c) The probable value of the animal.
(d) A statement of the date and place where it was taken up and confined.

17043. Preservation of animal from injury; Nonliability for escape or death 
The taker-up of an estray animal shall use reasonable care to preserve it from injury. If it dies or escapes from the taker-up at any time while he is holding it pursuant to this chapter, the taker-up shall not be held liable in any manner therefor.

17044. Compensation for keeping and care  (and this one!)
The taker-up is entitled to the sum prescribed by Section 17095 for the keeping and care of the estray animal.

17069. Return to owner; Payment of expenses of handling  (this one too!)
If ownership is proved to the satisfaction of the director, the animal shall be turned over to the owner upon payment by the owner of all expenses which were incurred in the handling of the animal.

There are even more laws on this issue, including the type of fence that must be constructed to restrain horses, and rules for the procedure of when a found animal can be sold by the finder.  However,  reading statutes is rarely as pleasant as reading novels, so I limit including the entire body of livestock containment laws here.  Click here to take you to more statutes.  All statute citations from Cal Food & Agr Code (enacted 1933).  Book citation: Stegner, Wallce, All the Little Live Things. Penguin Books, New York, 1967.

Before your horses are turned out to pasture this Spring, make sure the fences are safe and secure for your horse's safety, for your liability prevention (i.e., of a car hitting your horse and injuring the car passengers), and for your wallet-- to avoid paying for expenses at your horse's hotel!