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Fearing Neglect, Neighbors Feed Animals At Santa's Land

The owner of Santa’s Land in Putney and the theme park’s caretaker are scheduled to appear Tuesday in Brattleboro District Court. The two were cited in March for animal cruelty and neglect after 16 fallow deer, a pheasant and a pot-bellied pig were found dead on the park’s premises. Now the park’s remaining animals are getting attention from some local residents who’ve been trying to feed them.

On a chilly April day, Santa’s Land appears deserted, except for half a dozen goats in a fenced-in barn yard near the entrance on Route 5 in Putney. A cardboard sign is attached to the fence, with a message scrawled in red paint: "Thank you for the food and water on top of what we already give them." It says the animals have a water trough.

But after the allegations of animal cruelty and neglect against the park’s new owner, Sarah Massucco and her friends aren't convinced that the animals are getting the care they need.

"There were lots of us who were just outraged by the fact that there were animals that were being used for entertainment and profit and nobody was taking care of them." - Rockingham resident Sarah Massucco

"There were lots of us who were just outraged by the fact that there were animals that were being used for entertainment and profit and nobody was taking care of them," Massucco says.

Massucco says she and other local residents have tried unsuccessfully to offer help caring for the park’s remaining animals. So she and some friends — who did not want to be named — have been stopping by with water and throwing hay over the fence or stuffing it in through the wire mesh.

"I just felt like it was something I could do," Massucco says. "I could go down there and throw some hay and talk to them and give them some attention."

Santa’s Land was purchased in June by Lillian Billewicz of Fair Haven. Billewicz and Brian Deistler, the park's caretaker, opened the 1950s-era attraction on weekends through the Christmas season, then closed for the winter. In March, a Windham County sheriff’s deputy visited the park on another matter. Sheriff Keith Clark says the officer noticed that there were no footprints or signs of activity near the barn or feeding areas. He returned with another deputy and a search warrant.

"They found some dead deer inside the barn," Clark says. "They noticed some of the other animals looked thin for the time of year. They found that the water for the deer was frozen over, so the deer couldn’t get to it. And a few other things, enough for us to believe that the animals had not been properly cared for for a period of time."

The officers called in a vet to examine the surviving animals, Clarks says. "[She] determined they needed some care," he says, "But nothing of emergent concern, where the animals were going to be at risk over the next weeks and months if properly fed and a few things were taken care of."

Clark says he’s received complaints that more deer have died. But he says an officer has counted the park’s surviving animals and the numbers haven’t changed since the original discovery. He says the animals — a llama, miniature ponies, goats, more deer, a donkey and an emu — all look healthy.

Billewiscz and Deistler have not responded to requests for interviews.  A statement on the Santa’s Land Facebook page, claiming to be from the owners, lamented the deaths of the fallow deer. "The harshness of the winter has taken its toll," it said. "But please rest assured all animals are being fed, watered and sheltered appropriately." The statement adds that the owners will get a chance to tell their side of the story in court.

Meanwhile, Deistler also faces charges for possessing 20 bags of heroin.

Susan Keese was VPR's southern Vermont reporter, based at the VPR studio in Manchester at Burr & Burton Academy. After many years as a print journalist and magazine writer, Susan started producing stories for VPR in 2002. From 2007-2009, she worked as a producer, helping to launch the noontime show Vermont Edition. Susan has won numerous journalism awards, including two regional Edward R. Murrow Awards for her reporting on VPR. She wrote a column for the Sunday Rutland Herald and Barre-Montpelier Times Argus. Her work has appeared in Vermont Life, the Boston Globe Magazine, The New York Times and other publications, as well as on NPR.
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