The bill was signed by Governor John Hickenlooper on April 12 — while Lee was going through his ordeal — but didn't go into effect until September 1, nearly three months after his animals were seized.

Representative Jerry Sonnenberg, a bill co-sponsor and the chairman of the House Agriculture, Livestock and Natural Resources Committee, wrote a letter to the judge in Lee's case explaining the changes to the law. Sonnenberg, a farmer and rancher himself, says several things about Lee's case concern him. "Cattle and horses lived outside without shelter for centuries," he says. "And now for a court to determine it's okay to take animals because they don't have access to shelter worries me." As for the frozen water cited in Lee's case, he says that happens in the winter. Ranchers break the ice in the morning, as Lee did.

And he doesn't like that Lee's old reindeer was euthanized. "I have a couple of dogs," Sonnenberg says. "One old dog has arthritis and is almost blind, but he's in a loving home, and I care for him as much as the kids. Bill Lee had the same with a couple of reindeer.... For animal-control officers to take those reindeer and make a decision that those reindeer are not living a quality life and euthanize them, I think is completely wrong and needs to be dealt with."

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 was assigned a public defender, Dale McPhetres, who filed a flurry of motions in an attempt to get Lee's animals back. In one, he argued that the pre-amended law under which Lee's animals were seized was unconstitutional. Animal control seized more than 100 of Lee's animals but only charged him with animal cruelty related to 32 of them, wrote McPhetres, who declined an interview for this story because the case is still ongoing. If Lee didn't bond all of them — which he couldn't afford — McPhetres argued that he stood to lose them, even the ones he wasn't accused of abusing or neglecting. Essentially, Lee would be punished because he didn't have $30,000. "These animals are the property of Mr. Lee and absolutely essential to his livelihood," McPhetres wrote.

In August, another attorney, Jay Swearingen of the Animal Law Center in Denver, filed a motion in federal court for a temporary restraining order to stop animal control and Clear Creek County from selling, adopting or euthanizing Lee's animals. "We saw it as a statewide problem we've encountered before," Swearingen says. Plus, he says, "We needed to light a fire under the state court, because they weren't really doing anything or taking it seriously. By going into federal court, we said, 'One way or another, we're going to litigate this.'"

But on September 4, U.S. District Court Judge Brooke Jackson decided not to intervene, finding that Lee hadn't yet exhausted his remedies in state court.

His remedy came on October 23, when Clear Creek County Judge Olguin-Fresquez agreed with McPhetres's argument that the law was unconstitutional. The processes in place before the amendments went into effect on September 1 amount to "a taking by the state without any reasonable due process," she wrote. She ordered the county to hold all of Lee's animals "until these matters are finally concluded regardless of [Lee's] posting of bond."

On October 24, the Clear Creek County DA's Office announced its intention to appeal to the Clear Creek County District Court. DA Mark Hurlbert says no briefs have been filed yet.


Currently, the county has thirty of Lee's animals. Four — two reindeer, a donkey and Forest the dog — were euthanized. Another died of natural causes. The rest have been sold or adopted out.

Lee misses all of them.

"Most of my donkeys were in through here," he says one bright but chilly November day, pointing to a large fenced-in area to the east of his house. The yard is empty except for some nailed-together shelters, overturned buckets and knee-high weeds that have turned brown. "Normally, this stuff wouldn't have ever grown up," Lee says, swatting at the dry stalks with his hand. "I'd pull them up and throw them over the fence" — a snack for the animals.

Pens surround his cabin and a barn sits behind it. Lee built the barn before he built the house. Like the animal shelters, it's made of mostly recycled materials. "I finagle a lot," he says. Wooden pallets are broken apart and used to build shelters. Two old street-sweeping brushes — six feet tall, the bristles a faded pink color — are mounted on poles for scratching posts. When rust eats tiny holes in the bottoms of water troughs, Lee reuses them as feed troughs.

He even sees manure as a blessing in disguise. "Sometimes there's this conception that manure is bad," he says. "But I don't think so. It's dirt." Lee would push the manure in his animals' pens up to the fence line, where it would dry and form a sort of retaining wall.

Lee wanders to the pen on the west side of his house, where animal control complained he kept six donkeys without shelter. The burros were wild, he explains; he'd taken them from an owner who didn't want them anymore. Lee didn't want to mix them with his own herd, so he kept them separate in order to work with them and get them used to humans, "so they could serve a useful purpose," he says. "When they've got a purpose, I think they enjoy life more."

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