PUTNEY — Another sad chapter in the saga of Santa’s Land unfolded this weekend.
The Windham County Sheriff’s Department, armed with a court-issued search warrant, on Sunday confiscated the animals at the Christmas-themed amusement park, removing most of them to foster homes scattered around Vermont.
According to Windham County Deputy State’s Attorney Susan Cay, only the fallow deer remain at the park and they are being cared for by the town of Putney and the Windham County Humane Society. She said they would eventually be removed from Santa’s Land.
Cay said Monday that the sheriff’s department had been monitoring the condition of the animals ever since Santa’s Land owner Lillian Billewicz of Fair Haven, and her caretaker, Brian Deistler of Westminster, had been arraigned in April on animal cruelty charges.
A total of 16 fallow deer had died during the winter, along with a pot-bellied pig, a pheasant and a llama. According to a veterinarian’s report at the time, the fallow deer either starved to death or died from the cold because of lack of body fat.
Cay said Monday that the search warrant contained new allegations, but she declined to say whether additional criminal charges were pending.
She said that at a court hearing last week Billewicz and Deistler were arraigned on multiple charges of violating the court-ordered conditions of their release for failing to follow an animal care plan established by Dr. Tammy McNamara of Dummerston.
Cay said she had tried to have the animals removed from Billewicz and Deistler back in April, but that the judge had instead crafted the monitoring plan with the sheriff’s department. She said she again renewed her request to have the animals removed during Thursday’s court hearing. She said the Windham County Deputy Sheriff Melissa Martin had found evidence of neglect.
She said the animals were removed following state statute, with a veterinarian on hand, and in conjunction with the humane society and the U.S.D.A.
“This is only the first step in this process,” said the prosecutor.
Sarah Massucco of Bartonsville, who along with several other people have been trying to feed the animals and raise public awareness about the conditions at the Christmas-theme park, said she was happy the animals had finally been removed.
Massucco said she and Pamela Larsen Kissell had worked to find foster homes for the animals, some as far away as Hardwick, after Thursday’s court hearing.
“It was a pretty emotional day,” said Massucco, who said that she and Kissell would be visiting all the animals in their new foster homes.
Massucco said that two goats appear to be in very poor health, but that she expected they would recover.
She said there were 17 surviving fallow deer at the park, and that the deer would remain at Santa’s Land until a U.S. Department of Agriculture permit was obtained to allow the animals to be moved across state lines.
She said nine goats, three donkeys, two ponies, one peacock, one pheasant, a llama and an emu were loaded onto trailers and taken to their new homes. She said the two ponies, Dolly and Lucy, were reunited with earlier owners.
“Some of them are going to end up at VINE,” she said, referring to the Springfield animal sanctuary. VINE stands for Veganism is the Next Evolution.
Massucco said she was at Santa’s Land on Sunday when the humane societies were there, and she said the humane societies handled the paperwork associated with taking in foster animals.
Massucco and two other of the animal activists had been charged in July with trespassing at Santa’s Land while they were throwing hay over the fence to the animals. She said those charges were dropped in early August, and that they were never even arraigned.
Cay declined to comment about Billewicz’ recent re-filing of her bankruptcy petition. Last week, the U.S. Bankruptcy Court had dismissed a Chapter 13 petition that Billewicz, who is an attorney, had filed earlier in the summer. But according to court documents, Billewicz refiled another Chapter 13 petition the same day. She had recently been turned down by the town of Putney for her plan to establish a campground next to the amusement park.
Billewicz bought financially-troubled Santa’s Land in the summer of 2013, and the park was open on weekends until Christmas last year.
But the park never opened to the public this year after the animal cruelty charges became public. Billewicz had planned to open the park on Memorial Day weekend, but never did after protesters raised concerns about the conditions of the animals.
Deistler has been charged with two counts of sale of heroin and one count of grant larceny in charges that are unrelated to the animal cruelty charges.
Massucco said it was a draining experience, but she said that Vermont needs to improve its animal cruelty laws.
“Vermont needs to beef up its laws,” she said.
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