'It was pretty hairy,' says cowboy who lassoed a rogue steer on a Michigan highway
Lester is home at his animal sanctuary and doing just fine thanks to cow catcher Ricky Littlejohn
When Ricky Littlejohn got the call that Lester the steer was loose again, he knew he was in for a challenging day.
After all, it wasn't the professional cattle-wrangler's first time pursuing this particular bovine, and Lester had previously proven himself to be an extremely elusive fugitive.
But he had no idea he would end up chasing the rambunctious runaway down a Michigan highway on horseback, earning himself the nickname "the I-75 cowboy."
"It was quite scary at first because state police didn't quite have the highways shut completely down," Littlejohn told As It Happens guest host Helen Mann.
"The cars were whizzing by us going 70 to 75 miles an hour until I finally got a rope on him, and they got everything shut down. It was pretty hairy."
WATCH | Ricky Littlejohn lassoes Lester on the highway:
Lester lives at an animal sanctuary, so he's not destined to end up in a Big Mac any time soon. But despite his comfy digs, the crafty creature has a penchant for escaping his enclosure and getting into shenanigans.
Littlejohn first wrangled Lester about eight weeks ago, and returned the steer safety to his home at the Devoted Barn in Newport, Mich.
But almost immediately, Lester jumped through a wooden fence and was on the lam again.
He was missing for about six weeks when people started reporting Lester sightings along Interstate 75, near the village of Holly. The Devoted Barn requested Littlejohn's services once again.
"I hate to say this, but I hated that cow the first time. Like, he was so hard to catch the first time," Littlejohn said with a little chuckle. "But, you know, like, I don't say no very often. So I was, like, 'Yeah, no problem.'"
The great highway chase
On May 21, Littlejohn and his team headed to the area to scope it out.
"It looked like he'd been living there for a week or so. He was bedded down. He had a little home made there," he said.
Still, the wily creature was nowhere to be seen, so Littlejohn brought in some hounds to sniff him out. Sure enough, the dogs found Lester and started barking to signal their whereabouts — in the worst possible location.
"I had to slide down a hill on the backside of the gravel pit to get down to him," Littlejohn said. "When I slid down the hill, I popped out and I was right against the highway. And there he was, too, standing there right next to the highway."
He decided to go up on the road, which was the last thing we wanted him to do, but we just couldn't stop him.- Ricky Littlejohn, cow catcher
The wranglers called Michigan State Police to help with traffic control. But when the officers arrived at the scene, Lester took off running before they could fully close the highway.
Littlejohn and his horse Bucky gave chase. The cow catcher says he did his best to keep Lester off the road and drive him into the nearby woods.
But Lester would not be corralled. A steep hill on the forested side of the highway left him with nowhere to run — except straight into traffic.
"He decided to go up on the road, which was the last thing we wanted him to do, but we just couldn't stop him," Littlejohn said.
What unfolded next was captured on dramatic police dash cam footage.
The brown and white steer dodged in front of the police cruiser onto a patch of highway that was, thankfully, largely free of other traffic. Littlejohn, looking the perfect picture of an American cowboy, pursued close behind on Bucky, swinging his lasso in the air.
"What was running through my head is: I pray to God people slow down for us," Littlejohn said. "Like, if you hit a 1,000-pound cow, not only a cow is going to lose its life, but most likely the driver is going to lose its life, too. And that's kind of why we do what we do, is to try to keep people from getting hurt."
The chase was intense, but short. Littlejohn quickly lassoed Lester, then guided him to a patch of grass dividing the highway.
The police did not respond to a request for comment. But on Twitter, they called Littlejohn and his colleagues "a team of wranglers comprised of men and women comparable to the cast of Yellowstone," referring to the popular western TV drama.
"Eventually after much tom foolery, the critter was captured and removed from the freeway. Troopers reopened the freeway and things quickly got back to normal," the Michican State Police tweets read. "The bovine was not charged and is back in the pasture with a story to tell all the other livestock."
'Safe and sound'
Reached for comment, the Devoted Barn says Lester is recovering well from his ordeal.
"Lester is already looking so much happier and healthier," the sanctuary said, sending a picture of the plucky rescue animal in his pen. "We're so happy our boy is back safe and sound."
Littlejohn, meanwhile, is already bracing for the next call.
"As far as I know, he's being kept in a barn, with his own stall and straw and personal feed and stuff. But eventually, you know, they want to let him back out with some companions and stuff. And I honestly would not put it past him to leave them and just go," he said.
"The elusive Lester."
Interview with Ricky Littlejohn produced by Talia Kliot