Ferae Naturae: What Can I Do about Wild Animals on My Land?
As confirmed by the 2020 U.S. Census, many areas in the State of Texas are rapidly growing in population. Due to this growth, a significant amount of development is occurring on property that has previously been vacant—except for wildlife. Unfortunately, this sometimes causes interaction between the residents of newer subdivisions and wild animals, some of which are dangerous, that may have been displaced by the development or that simply live close enough to drop by for a visit. I have personally seen coyotes wandering the streets of my neighborhood, and there are occasionally reports of outdoor pets going missing. This article explores whether anyone has responsibility for the activity of these wild animals.
Texas recognizes the common law doctrine of ferae naturae, a Latin phrase roughly meaning “wild animal.” Under the doctrine, as quoted by the Texas Supreme Court in Union Pacific Railroad Company v. Nami, 498 S.W.3d 890 (Tex. 2016), “a landowner is not liable for the acts of wild animals occurring on the owner’s property unless the landowner actually reduced indigenous wild animals to possession or control or introduced nonindigenous animals into the area.” Similarly, Texas law does not typically impose a duty to control wild animals on either the state itself or its political subdivisions, such as cities and counties. There are certain exceptions, however, such as enforcement of the state’s dangerous dog statutes and rabies control. For those exceptions, a city may have certain obligations if it has elected to create an animal control office; but, if a city has no such office, then the obligations would be assumed by a county’s animal control office, or if it does not have one, by the county sheriff. Therefore, in general, no one is responsible for any harm caused by wild animals. So, what recourse does a landowner in Texas have if wild animals are causing problems on their land? Well, fortunately, the State of Texas provides a few options for self-help.
[a] person who has evidence clearly showing that wildlife protected by [the] code is causing serious damage to commercial agricultural, horticultural, or aquicultural interests, or is a threat to public safety, and who desires to kill the protected wildlife shall give written notice of the facts to the [Parks and Wildlife Department].
The department may then issue a permit to kill the protected wildlife, in accordance with certain rules. Occasionally, however, circumstances do not afford time for “red tape” and bureaucracy, and so Texas law provides some latitude for these situations as well. Specifically, under the Texas Health and Safety Code, “[a] dog or coyote that is attacking, is about to attack, or has recently attacked livestock, domestic animals, or fowls may be killed by any person witnessing the attack; or the attacked animal’s owner or a person acting on behalf of the owner if the owner or person has knowledge of the attack.” Essentially, this permits a dog or coyote to be killed if there is direct evidence of a past, present, or future attack. However, if there is only suspicion that a dog or coyote has or may attack, then the law only authorizes the animal to be trapped, rather than killed, and then transferred to either its owner, if there is one, or the local animal control authority. Neither of these situations require a license or permit, due to the exigency of the circumstances.
I’ll close this article with an interesting little anecdote. In 2010, then-Governor of Texas, Rick Perry, was on a jog one morning with his dog. The governor’s mansion was undergoing some restoration after being damaged by arson, and so Governor Perry was temporarily living in a somewhat more rural area of the Texas Capital. During this particular jog, a coyote appeared and was about to attack his dog, and the Governor dispatched the wild animal with a Ruger LCP, a .380 caliber pistol. While this story is common knowledge around Texas, what is lesser known is that Ruger then created a limited edition “Coyote Special” version of its popular LCP, in commemoration of Governor Perry’s encounter.
Please do not rely on this article as legal advice. We can tell you what the law is, but until we know the facts of your given situation, we cannot provide legal guidance. This website is for informational purposes and not for the purposes of providing legal advice. Information about our commercial and business litigation practice can be found here.
Byron L. Brown is an attorney with the Randle Law Office in Houston, Texas, where his practice areas include municipal economic development, municipal franchises and commercial lease litigation. He graduated from the University of Texas at San Antonio with a B.A. in Criminal Justice, and earned his J.D. from the University of Houston Law Center.