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Animals Removed From Santa's Land

Officials have removed a number of the animals from the shuttered Santa’s Land theme park in Putney. The park’s owner and her employee were already facing animal cruelty charges, after about 20 animals died this winter. They now face additional charges alleging that they failed to follow a court-ordered animal care plan.

Since March, animal rights advocates have been calling for authorities to remove the animals from Santa’s Land.

Since March, animal rights advocates have been calling for authorities to remove the animals from Santa's Land.

This past Sunday they got their wish.  Nearly 20 animals were removed from the 43-acre park under a warrant obtained by the Windham County Sheriff’s Department.  Donkeys, ponies, goats, a llama and an emu were among the animals led to trucks and trailers waiting to take them to foster homes. Seventeen fallow deer, some reportedly in poor condition, remained at the park under supervision.

"It was all very calm," says Sarah Massucco.

Massucco, who lives in Bartonsville, is one of a small group of local residents who have been protesting outside the park. Massucco and a friend were cited for trespassing in connection with attempts to feed the animals, but the charges have since been dropped.

Massucco and others in the group had tried repeatedly to persuade officials to move the animals and said they’d found people willing to house them. Massucco says several of those people were at the park Sunday to follow through on their offers.

"There were a lot of hugs," she says. "We were just all very relieved that something was actually happening."

Lillian Billewicz, the park’s owner, bought Santa’s Land in 2013. She recently filed for bankruptcy. The once-popular tourist attraction has been closed since December. In April, Billewicz and her employee Brian Deistler pled not guilty to animal cruelty after several animals died, allegedly from exposure and underfeeding.

Corporal Melissa Martin of the Windham County Sheriff’s Office has been monitoring the animals and the park to assure the owner followed a court-ordered care plan.  According to court documents, Martin and other inspectors found safety hazards, unsanitary conditions and evidence that the animals weren’t receiving the amount of grain and hay called for in the care plan. At least twice, Martin found the animals’ drinking water laced with mosquito larvae, pine needles and algae.

Billewicz and Deistler were in court last week on charges that they violated the conditions under which they were released on the animal cruelty charge in April. At that time, Windham County Deputy State’s Attorney Susan Cay asked that the animals be removed. The judge called for a separate hearing on her request. But the animals were confiscated before a hearing could take place. Cay says new developments prompted a warrant for their immediate removal, but would not say what those developments were.

Billewicz and Deistler are scheduled for a pretrial hearing on September 16. Deistler is also facing separate charges of heroin possession and Grand Larceny.

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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