In our last newsletter, we shared three real-life stories of people fighting off a wild bear attack. These scenarios beg the question: How can a person legally defend themselves against an attacking animal?

The answer, from a legal perspective, is more complicated than you would think. If you look through the Missouri statutes, there is no one place to find a comprehensive man vs. animal answer.  Animals, both domestic and wild, are discussed in various places in the revised statutes as well as the code of state regulations.  It would be nice if the legislature had written one clear and comprehensive statute addressing the issue of use of force against animals, but as it now stands we must look to the hodgepodge of animal laws for guidance.

Missouri law allows deadly force against animals classified as “large carnivores” under RSMo 578.608 if a person has reason to believe that the large carnivore is chasing, attacking, injuring or killing a human being, livestock, or poultry. There are some restrictions. Large carnivores are defined as “tiger, lion, jaguar, leopard, snow leopard, clouded leopard, and cheetah, including a hybrid cross with such cat, but excluding any unlisted nonnative cat, or any common domestic or house cat; or a bear of a species that is nonnative to this state and held in captivity”. RSMo 578.600.

A separate distinction is made for dangerous wild animals. Dangerous wild animals may be killed when on the loose in Missouri. Dangerous wild animals are specified to include lion, tiger, leopard, ocelot, jaguar, cheetah, margay, mountain lion, Canada lynx, bobcat, jaguarundi, hyena, wolf, bear, nonhuman primate, coyote, any deadly, dangerous, or poisonous reptile, or any deadly or dangerous reptile over eight feet long. The Missouri Department of Conservation has also issued “Rules of Engagement” to assist in situations involving nuisance or dangerous animals which can be found online.

Endangered species may be subject to special protections under federal law. If you believe an animal which may be endangered is damaging your property, you should contact a Missouri Department of Conservation Officer for instructions on how to proceed. If all else fails, the Wildlife Code of Missouri includes a “trump” rule that allows landowners to protect their property by trapping or shooting some species of wildlife where local ordinances don’t prohibit these methods. On Page 4 of the Wildlife Code under 3 CSR 10-4.130, it states:

“Subject to federal regulations governing the protection of property from migratory birds, any wildlife except deer, turkey, black bears and endangered species which beyond a reasonable doubt is damaging property may be captured or killed by the owner of the property being damaged, or by his/her representative at any time and without permit, but only by shooting or trapping… Wildlife may be so controlled only on the owner’s property to prevent further damage. Wildlife so killed or captured must be reported to an agent of the department within twenty-four hours and disposed of according to his/her instructions. Deer, turkey, black bears and endangered species that are causing damage may be killed only with the permission of an agent of the department and by methods authorized by him/her.” Be mindful to follow local ordinances as local ordinances regarding the killing of animals are allowed to be more restrictive than state laws.

It is not likely that we will ever have the opportunity to be confronted with a deadly scenario dealing with a “dangerous wild animal” or other non-native wild animal, however, the real possibility exists that we could be in a position to face a dangerous domestic animal or an angry livestock animal. What happens in this situation? Well, there is no statute that provides you with the specific authorization to defend yourself or another person from an attacking animal that is not a “dangerous wild animal.”  However, Missouri law does recognize an exemption to the Missouri animal cruelty statutes which provides that “the killing of an animal by any person at any time if such animal is outside of the owned or rented property of the owner or custodian of such animal and the animal is injuring any person or farm animal but shall not include police or guard dogs while working” is an exception to the criminal penalties which would otherwise apply.

Although use of force against animals is not clearly spelled out in the statutes, Missouri’s law regarding use of force against dogs is a useful guide. A person may use deadly force against a dog if there is a reasonable apprehension of imminent harmful contact by the dog against yourself or another person. You cannot, however, justify killing a dog if it is within an enclosure belonging to the owner. RSMo 273.033.1.

Until now, we have been talking about Missouri law. What about federal law? The federal law has actually had the foresight to specifically provide that a person may kill an endangered animal in self-defense, such as the regulations concerning the Mexican Wolf in 50 C.F.R. Sec. 17.84(k)(3)(xii), or the Grizzly Bear in 50 C.F.R. Sec. 17.40(b)(i)(B). Unlike the Missouri statutes, this makes the federal law clear and comprehendible.  Therefore, if you are carrying your concealed handgun in a national park and you find yourself face to face with a Grizzly Bear, you can use your gun without fear of federal prosecution.