The week Cpl. Chris Reister spent on an Alberta ranch in 2010 was one of the most memorable of his career as an RCMP livestock investigator.
Alongside the Alberta Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals and Livestock Identification Services (LIS), Reister captured 200 cows and 200 horses in need of care and attention.
"It was a fun time and a successful prosecution, but there was some humane issues going on with the animals," says Reister. "It felt good to get the livestock out of that situation, on some good feed and nursed back to health."
Reister is one of two livestock investigators in Alberta. He's responsible for the southern portion of the province while Cpl. Andrew Grainger covers the north, from Red Deer to the border of the Northwest Territories.
Reister grew up on a farm in rural Alberta, eventually raising his own cattle before joining the RCMP. To this day he has his own horses.
His experience in agriculture gave him the skills needed to work in the position, which he's held for the last eight years.
"It's not just a job, it's a way of life for me," says Reister.
Dressed in jeans, boots and, if they want, a cowboy hat, these investigators are often referred to as cowboy cops.
Alberta has the only permanent positions, while British Columbia is working to fill a long-vacant post and Saskatchewan is hoping to create a similar role.
While the livestock investigators serve both the industry and members of the RCMP in Alberta, they're often called upon for advice on cases outside the province.
"The police need us to help them navigate some of the cases they come across," says Grainger. "It's important to be able to connect with and talk to farmers and ranchers and also understand what they're going through."
"And on the flip side, a lot of the farmers and ranchers lose interest in working with a police officer who doesn't know what they're talking about. Having us as a liaison between the two is quite important."
Crime in every industry
It's the job of the livestock investigators to work with the livestock industry — the second largest industry in the province — to prevent theft and fraud.
"Cattle are no different than a lot of the other commodities or property," says Reister.
About 600 head of cattle go missing every year in Alberta from theft alone.
The crimes are challenging to solve as rural areas are less populated, which means there are few if any witnesses. "It's hard to get a step ahead of the criminals," says Reister. "We work closely with our partners, the livestock inspectors from LIS, to do so."
Shawn McLean, the manager of LIS, which partially funds the two RCMP positions, says that crime has shifted from cattle rustling to cattle fraud.
"The modern-day cow thief robs from the bank, not from the people," says McLean.
Grainger never realized how frequently people try to sell financed cattle until he became a livestock investigator in 2015.
"With the price of cattle being so high, it's very lucrative for people to be selling them in their own name and pocketing the money," says Grainger.
"Without cattle financing, the industry wouldn't survive," says Reister. "So we try to do our best to protect the lending institutions."
But overall, the most frequent calls they receive concern stray animals.
"It's a serious matter when stray animals are reported to police," says Grainger.
This past winter, Grainger dealt with a large number of stray horses outside of Mayerthorpe. An elderly man was killed on the highway after his vehicle hit the group of horses.
"The detachment didn't know what to do, so they called us," says Grainger. "We set up a program and trapped all the horses and seized them."
Having a working knowledge of the industry is necessary to be effective in the role, which most Mounties don't have these days, says Grainger.
"It's no different than the other specialized areas in policing where you need a good working knowledge of the industry," says Reister. "You can't just ask any police officer to jump on a horse and rope a stray steer."