McBrayer wasn't convinced. She served Lee with a summons for two more counts of animal cruelty and seized Mama and Cupid. They were taken to a vet in Conifer, who diagnosed Mama as anemic, possibly due to a treatable blood parasite. But the vet found there was nothing she could do for Cupid. The old reindeer, McBrayer wrote, "was euthanized without incident."

McBrayer kept returning to Lee's ranch. On May 17, she showed up for the third follow-up visit since she seized Mama and Cupid. By then, Lee had gotten treatment for Forest's tooth and taken all of his remaining llamas to the vet. But McBrayer still found fault with the way Lee was keeping his animals. The affidavit lists thirteen complaints ranging from dirty rabbit hutches to a thin goat named Oscar to sheep with "excessively overgrown" wool coats. The word "excessive" appears in many written observations, most often in reference to manure in the pens.

That day, McBrayer sent a letter to Lee and his lawyer, warning that if the situations weren't addressed, animal control would press more charges.

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.

Two weeks later, on June 1, McBrayer was back again with the USDA vet and a USDA regional enforcement and compliance specialist. Lee's three cats were living inside a shed she deemed "filthy." Forest's tooth was better, but he now had an injury to his paw that was causing him to limp. Oscar the goat was limping, too. So McBrayer seized Forest and Oscar and handed Lee two more counts of animal cruelty. The same vet who euthanized Cupid diagnosed Oscar with a sprained ankle and a tapeworm infection. Forest had osteoarthritis.

All along, Lee was trying to make improvements. When animal-control officer Hayden visited him three days later, Lee told him that he'd sheared seven llamas and five alpacas, cleaned manure out of several pens and made appointments with his vet and his farrier, whose job it is to trim animals' hooves. Both were due to spend June 6 at Laughing Valley Ranch.

But they never got the chance to do their work. A judge signed off on McBrayer's search warrant, causing a team of law enforcement agents and veterinarians to descend on Lee's property that day. They seized all 106 of his remaining animals, including 25 chickens, one rooster, a goose, two rabbits, fifteen dogs, two horses, two ponies, seven llamas, five alpacas, six sheep, seven goats, eighteen donkeys, one mule, three cats and the remaining eleven reindeer. McBrayer wrote in her affidavit that she believed "no animal in possession of Mr. Lee can be considered cared for."

But after all 106 animals were evaluated, Lee was only charged with an additional sixteen counts of animal cruelty. Still, none of his animals were returned. Instead, Lee was ordered to pay more than $30,000 per month in bond if he wanted to keep his animals from being sold off or given away to other homes. Lee requested a hearing to dispute the cost, but after listening to testimony, Clear Creek County Judge Rachel Olguin-Fresquez decided against him.

Lee felt defeated. "All of the animals taken in the seizure, I believe none of them should have technically been taken," he says. He thinks animal control chose to see him as "a poor old fella who got run over by his truck" and had too many animals to care for — which he insists wasn't the case. "I don't think I was hoarding animals, because I used them," Lee says.

It especially irks him that the county took every last one of his animals — even the healthy ones. "They need to find a way to keep animal control from jumping the gun," he says.

**********

This year, state lawmakers took a hard look at Colorado's animal-cruelty law with an eye toward preventing what Lee has complained about. An overwhelming majority passed a bill, House Bill 12-1125, in an attempt to fix the problems.

The bill adds several provisions to the statute. Owners are now allowed to have their own veterinarian examine their animal within 72 hours of its being seized. They're also entitled to a hearing within ten days to determine not only the reasonableness of the cost of keeping the animal at a shelter, but whether there was "sufficient probable cause for the impoundment" — which advocates consider a huge victory. And if an owner is found not guilty of cruelty, a new provision requires that they be refunded the bond money.

The Dumb Friends League, the Colorado Humane Society, the Colorado Veterinary Medical Association and the Colorado Federation of Animal Welfare Agencies testified in support. Most agreed the bill wasn't perfect, but it was an improvement over the old law.

"The goal is to eliminate some ambiguity and to add clarity," testified Joe Stafford, director of animal law enforcement for the Humane Society of the Pikes Peak Region, before a Senate committee. Stafford added that animal owners "have argued we're holding the animal hostage: 'You either give me $600 to bond your animal, or the animal becomes my property, and you, as a citizen, have no rights to contest whether what I did was legal or not legal.'"

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