McBrayer voiced her concerns to both Lees; Carol Lee, she wrote, assured her that they understood the need for clean water and said teams of volunteers were coming to build shelters for the animals. Four days later, McBrayer spoke to Lee's vet, Dr. Debbie Mayo, who attested that Lee's animals, including the reindeer, were under her care.

But seven months later, in December 2011, the county got another complaint. A woman who'd seen Lee's reindeer at the annual Georgetown Christmas Market, where Lee played Santa, reported that one of his deer was in bad shape. Its spine looked curled and its front hooves were splayed in an attempt to avoid putting weight on its back legs, she told McBrayer. It appeared to be in pain, and its hindquarters buckled underneath it when it was led from its pen.

On January 5, McBrayer, Hayden and a USDA veterinarian showed up at Lee's ranch. Once again, Lee invited them to look around. McBrayer didn't like what she saw: Six donkeys still had no shelter. The water in several of the troughs was murky. Some animals' hooves were overgrown. One pen had too much manure in it. And two reindeer — a male and a female — appeared to be in pain. The female, McBrayer wrote, was lying down and refused to get up until Lee pulled her by the halter. The deer's breathing was labored, her nose "dripped with mucus," and "her front knees were swollen to several times their normal size," she wrote.

Bill Lee's beard gives him the look he needs to portray both Santa and a mountain man.
Bill Lee's beard gives him the look he needs to portray both Santa and a mountain man.
Bill Lee's reindeer and burro pens have been empty since the county seized his animals.
Bill Lee's reindeer and burro pens have been empty since the county seized his animals.

Lee explained that the reindeer was "an older animal he was allowing to live out her life," according to the affidavit. She has arthritis, Lee said of the deer, but she still gets up to eat.

McBrayer told him that the condition of both reindeer was "unacceptable" and to have a vet see them within 24 hours. Lee did so; records indicate that Mayo assessed the female reindeer as being knock-kneed but in "fair" body condition and the male reindeer as slightly hunchbacked but in "good" condition. McBrayer warned Lee again about the water and gave him a deadline of January 19 to build shelters for all of the animals.

She didn't wait that long. McBrayer visited on January 9 and again on January 13, this time with the USDA vet. It was 11 a.m., and they found Lee breaking the ice that had formed overnight in the water troughs. When he did, the animals drank "excessively," McBrayer noted, indicating that they were very thirsty. She also noticed two burros with sores on their spines, and four burros — all of whom were between 20 and 28 years old — that she thought were too skinny.

She decided to take action, seizing twelve burros, which were taken to Denkai Sanctuary near Grover. Floss Blackburn, president of the non-profit animal sanctuary, says five of the donkeys were healthy. But, she adds, "seven were in horrible condition."

McBrayer served Lee with a summons for animal cruelty and gave him bonding paperwork that indicated he'd have to pay $4,000 to keep the animals from being sold or adopted. Lee couldn't afford that. Instead, he says, he bonded three "out of principle": 28-year-old Nestor and 22-year-old Mr. Ziffel, seized for having "exceptionally poor" body conditions, and one-year-old Abigail, seized for having a lack of shelter and frozen water.

When McBrayer returned to Lee's ranch on the deadline day of January 19, she noted that he'd done as she asked: All of the animals had clean water and shelter. The old female reindeer, Cupid, was lying down in her pen. McBrayer wrote that she "appeared to be in pain."

But for the time being, Cupid was allowed to stay.


On April 3, the county got yet another call. This one was from Melody Charlton, the woman who'd looked after Lee's donkeys and whose friend had made the first complaint. It concerned Lee's dog, Forest. The woman said she'd recently seen pictures of the dog and he looked underweight, old and "miserable." Two days later, McBrayer, Hayden and the USDA vet were back on Lee's property. Forest, McBrayer wrote, was thin and had a quarter-sized lump on his jaw likely caused by a rotten tooth. Lee promised to take the dog to the vet later that day.

But the inspection didn't end there. As always, Lee "willingly showed us the animals," McBrayer reported. They included a llama named Mama who was so skinny, McBrayer wrote, "I could feel every vertebra in the animal's back as well as most of its pelvis." Lee explained that Mama was thin because she was nursing a baby and that he was following his vet's instructions to separate her from the rest of the herd and feed her more beet pulp in an effort to fatten her up.

McBrayer also took another look at Cupid. "Her body condition had declined since I last saw her, and her ribs and spine were now visible," McBrayer wrote. Lee explained that he'd been giving Cupid pain medication per McBrayer's suggestion, and McBrayer watched Cupid go to the feed trough to eat alfalfa. But she argued that Cupid had trouble eating because she no longer had teeth; Lee attempted to demonstrate that she did by sticking his finger in her mouth.

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