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The Animals Aren’t the Only Thing to Fear, Know the Law to Survive an Animal Attack – Colorado

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?

We asked your Independent Program Attorney to answer this question for you, so you will know what to do if you are attacked by an animal.

C.R.S. 33-3-106 provides some clarity regarding when use of force is lawful against certain wildlife and dogs.  Under this statute, it is lawful to trap, kill, or otherwise dispose of bears, mountain lions, or dogs without a permit in situations when it is necessary to prevent them from inflicting death, damage, or injury to livestock, real property, a motor vehicle, or human life.  Real property means land and generally anything affixed to the owner’s land such as buildings.  Further, force, including deadly force, may be used against dogs when it is necessary to prevent them from inflicting death or injury to big game and to small game, birds, and mammals.  Note, this statute does not make it lawful to use deadly force against these animals to protect private or personal property.  Pets are considered private property in Colorado and deadly force to protect the family dog or cat may not be justified.  Further, while dogs are mammals, the protections of this statute apply to damage caused by “wildlife” which would likely not include dogs.  However, this statute does clarify that deadly force used against any of these animals to protect human life is justified.

C.R.S. 33-6-107(9) provides additional guidance regarding use of force, including deadly force against wildlife on private property.  Under this statute, it is lawful, without a permit, to hunt, trap, or take black-billed magpies, common crows, starlings, English or house sparrows, common pigeons, coyotes, bobcats, red foxes, raccoons, jackrabbits, badgers, marmots, prairie dogs, pocket gophers, Richardson’s ground squirrels, rock squirrels, thirteen-lined ground squirrels, porcupines, crayfish, tiger, salamanders, muskrats, beavers, exotic wildlife, and common snapping turtles on lands owned or leased by a person but only when such wildlife is causing damage to crops, real or personal property, or livestock.  Further, any person may kill skunks or rattlesnakes when necessary to protect life or property.

The more common question for U.S. LawShield members poses the question when is it justified to use force, including deadly force, against a dog that is attacking their family pet?  Unfortunately, Colorado law provides virtually no guidance for these types of scenarios.  Use of force statutes in Colorado discuss situations where force is justified against “another person.”  Therefore, we are forced to speculate whether Colorado’s use of force laws apply to animal attacks as the legislature has not addressed this issue.  With that said, the following offers a discussion regarding the laws that have been enacted and how they may apply in these types of situations.  Ultimately, prosecutors are given broad discretion to determine when to seek criminal charges in cases involving use of force against animals.

Under C.R.S. 18-1-704, a person is justified in using deadly physical force against another person if he/she reasonably believes a lesser degree of force is inadequate and reasonably believes he/she is in imminent danger of being killed or receiving great bodily injury.  In conjunction with C.R.S. 33-3-106, it is likely lawful to use deadly force against an attacking animal to prevent or stop an attack by any animal that presents a serious threat to human life.

Under C.R.S. 18-1-706, a person is justified in using reasonable and appropriate physical force upon another person when he/she reasonably believes it necessary to prevent damage to his/her property.  The use of physical force in this situation must be reasonable and appropriate given the circumstances.  Further, the use of deadly force is not justified to protect personal property.  Though many consider pets part of their family, they are considered private property in Colorado.  Thus, this statute would make it unlawful to use deadly force to protect a family pet against an attacking dog.

However, Colorado provides an affirmative defense called “choice of evils” whereby conduct that would otherwise constitute an offense is not criminal when that conduct is necessary as an emergency measure to avoid an imminent public or private injury which is about to occur.  The emergency may not have been created by the actor and the desirability and urgency of avoiding the injury must clearly outweigh the desirability of avoiding the injury sought to be prevented.  Again, this defense is typically raised in situations involving conduct used against other people and it is unclear whether a court would permit this defense for conduct used against animals.

A prosecutor may elect to charge a person with animal cruelty that used deadly force against an animal.  It is a class six felony for a person to needlessly kill an animal.  It is a class one misdemeanor to recklessly or with criminal negligence needlessly kill an animal.  The term “needlessly” is not defined by statute and would be left to jury’s interpretation.  A prosecutor could also pursue charges including prohibited use of weapon, a class two misdemeanor, or illegal discharge of a firearm, a class five felony, if a firearm was fired inside of a dwelling, building, occupied structure, or motor vehicle.

In any case, your actions will be evaluated against those of a reasonable person.  That is, the law will look at all of the circumstances surrounding the use of your firearm to see if a reasonable person would have acted the same way.  So long as a reasonable person would have used deadly force to stop the attack, you should not be criminally liable for your actions.

Until now, we have been talking about Colorado 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 Colorado 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.

To View the law for defense against animals in other states click on the state names below:

Florida

Georgia

Missouri

Oklahoma

Pennsylvania

Texas

Virginia

Select U.S. States and Federal Law 

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