A man and a boy stand next to do cows in a fence
Heath Burkhart pats Red, one of his Highland cows, while his son Lincoln, 4, climbs on the fence. Last month, Burkhart's five Highland cows got loose, breaking through the fencing and scaling a 10-foot embankment. Two of the five cows are back home. Credit: Linda Coan O'Kresik / BDN

An Old Town family is exhausted, but relieved, as they wait for their weeks-long quest to catch their herd of escaped cattle to come to a close.

Last month, Erica and Heath Burkhart, owners of Bulrush Farm, bought five Highland cows from a local farmer who was retiring, hoping to build their growing farm on Bennoch Road. The herd was also going to fulfill Heath Burkhart’s dream of owning cows after the family moved to Maine from North Carolina in March 2020.

But when the time came to load the cattle, Erica Burkhart said the cows were acting “absolutely feral” and kicked the farmer who was selling them. This raised a red flag, but Burkhart said they were assured the cows simply didn’t like being corralled “because the only time Highland cows are corralled is when they’re taken to slaughter.”

Last month, Erica and Heath Burkhart, owners of Bulrush Farm, bought five Highland cows. But the day the cows were brought to their farm, they got loose, breaking through the fencing and scaling a 10-foot embankment. Two of the five cows are back home. Credit: Linda Coan O’Kresik / BDN

The Burkharts managed to release the cows into a smaller corral on their farm, where the cows would settle down, become acclimated to their new home, and wouldn’t be able to escape before being released into a larger pasture — or so they thought.

But before the family could close the corral’s gate, the cows broke through the fencing, scaled a 10-foot embankment and ran across the street into the Alton Bog, Burkhart said.

“That began our chaos,” she said.

The family alerted neighbors, local authorities, the Maine Department of Transportation, Maine State Police and companies that frequently use Bennoch Road. Then they waited, hoping the escaped bovine would return.

Burkhart said wayward cows usually return home because they know where their food and water are, but that wasn’t the case for this herd, since they didn’t yet know the Burkharts’ farm was their new home.

Instead, the cows moved to the northbound side of I-95 near mile marker 200. That’s when the calls from police started pouring in.

Burkhart said the family was given a chance to catch the cows as long as the animals didn’t step foot on the pavement. 

“We’re liable, both financially and legally, if the cows cause any damage to people or property,” Burkhart said. “That was enough to give me a stomach ulcer.”

A sign went up along I-95 warning drivers of loose cows.

A sign warning drivers of loose cows around mile marker 200 is illuminated along the northbound lanes of I-95 after Erica and Heath Burkhart’s cows got loose and were wandering close to the interstate. Credit: Linda Coan O’Kresik / BDN

Each time police spotted the cows near the highway, Erica and Heath Burkhart had to leave their five young children and try to corral the animals and bring them home.

Community members offered to help look for them, or fly drones and give the family their coordinates. By the time the family reached the location, however, the cows would often be long gone.

“We’ve responded to every call, every hour of the night, for the last 19 days,” Burkhart said. “We would stake them out every night from 5 p.m. to 2 a.m. It’s our greatest desire to be good neighbors and ensure the community is safe.”

Burkhart is thankful the cattle tended to wander north and stay in wooded, rural areas rather than strolling into downtown Old Town or Orono. Most of the cow sightings were along I-95 northbound by mile markers 200 and 201. Fortunately, the cows never went into the road, Burkhart said.

The family looked into getting animal tranquilizers from other farmers, veterinarians and game wardens, but discovered they are a highly controlled substance, Burkhart said. They couldn’t find anyone with the medication — and a long-range tranquilizer gun — who would help, she said.

Clockwise from left: Bert, a yearling, is one of two Highland cows back home safe on the Burkharts’ farm; The two yearlings, Bert and Red, are back home safe on the Burkharts’ farm; Waylon Burkhart, 13, feeds Red, one of the two cows that is back home safe on the Burkharts’ farm after their herd got loose nearly three weeks ago. Credit: Linda Coan O’Kresik / BDN

The Burkharts eventually managed to catch three cows on May 12 on the side of a I-95 using corral paneling: two young calves and a 2-year-old heifer. However, the older cow managed to escape from the farm again by lifting a piece of fencing with her horns.

That marked a turning point.

“After we caught that one and saw what she did, we realized there’s no catching them,” Burkhart said. “The longer this goes on, the more dangerous it is because cattle can become more feral and more likely to go into the road and cause an accident.”

Highland cattle will grow to between 900 and 1,200 pounds, according to the American Highland Cattle Association.

The family asked a police officer to euthanize the newly escaped cow, which happened on May 6. The two calves, Bert and Red, are safely back on the Burkharts’ farm.

The family struggled to find someone who could help until they were finally referred to the local division of the U.S. Department of Agriculture. They found a wildlife biologist who could put down the remaining two loose cows.

“The last thing we wanted is for anything bad to happen and yet we couldn’t find anyone or any resource to help us in this situation,” Burkhart said. “To hear someone say, ‘Yes, this is something we can handle and we can help you,’ made me break into tears.”

The biologist was still pursuing the remaining two loose cows as of Wednesday.

As the family waits for their wild cow chase to end, Burkhart said she considers herself lucky that the loose cows haven’t hurt anyone. But the ordeal hasn’t been cheap.

The family has spent about $23,000 between purchasing the cattle, the fencing to contain them, and the corral paneling they used to catch the cows.

Erica and Heath Burkhart, owners of Bulrush Farm, with their five children Waylon, Augustus, Lincoln, Jolene and Heidi. Credit: Linda Coan O’Kresik / BDN Credit: Linda Coan O'Kresik / BDN

“It hurts my feelings, and it hurts my wallet, but I cannot complain about it,” Burkhart said. “We’ll get back on our feet again and try again. Our hope is to learn from our mistakes, know what to look for, and learn when to walk away or say no when we need to.”

Burkhart said she’s most thankful for the friends, family, community members, law enforcement, wildlife authorities and experts who offered their support and patience over the past few weeks.

“This calamity has been a privilege because of the people we’ve met who donated their time and efforts to us,” she said. “We’re so grateful for them, it’s overwhelming.”

Kathleen O'Brien

Kathleen O'Brien is a reporter covering the Bangor area. Born and raised in Portland, she joined the Bangor Daily News in 2022 after working as a Bath-area reporter at The Times Record. She graduated from...