It's true that their hooves were long; they were like that when Lee got them, and he was working with his farrier to trim them. But the farrier couldn't trim them all the way in one session because the burros' hooves became too tender. He and Lee's vet were due to come back to finish the job the day after the burros were seized in January, Lee says.

As for the shelter, he says, a tall row of trees blocked the wind and weather on one side of the pen while the house blocked the wind from the other side. "They were wild donkeys," he says. "They were used to living out in the cold and the snow."

Lee admits that his ways might be "old-fashioned." But he maintains that nothing he did was harmful. "I'm getting chastised for letting animals live out their lives," he says. His female reindeer, Cupid, was fourteen years old — which is about as old as a reindeer can get with proper care. "As far as I was concerned, the reindeer had the will to live." So did Forest, he says. "Would the dog have lived much longer? Maybe not. But if he'd been home these six months, he'd have been happy." Lee was allowed to say goodbye to Forest before he was put down last week.

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.

State representative Wes McKinley, a rancher with property in southeast Colorado, met Lee through efforts to designate pack-burro racing an official Colorado summer heritage sport. He visited Lee's ranch in April, before the big seizure. The animals, he says, "were in great shape. They had quite a bit of room. They had feed and they had water and they were happy and content." As for the reindeer, he says, "their only problem was that they'd gotten old."

Keeping old animals isn't cruel, he argues, "as long as their eyes are bright, their ears are up, and they're happy to see you in the morning."

Holly Tarry, the Colorado director for the Humane Society of the United States, tagged along with McKinley that day. "I gave them, up front, a disclaimer that if I see animal cruelty, I'm going to report it," says Tarry. What she saw was a lot of animals, but none that were being abused.

"I did not see animal cruelty," Tarry says, adding that she's not an investigator. "The main thing I felt when I was there was that Bill Lee seemed to have an overwhelming urge to take on animals he perceived were in need, and that is a position I can sympathize with. But I also understand that animals can suffer if you take on more than have the resources to care for."

Captain Bruce Snelling of the Clear Creek County Sheriff's Office says there was never any doubt that Lee loved his animals. "But we're of the opinion that he didn't have the ability or capability to care for them," Snelling says — especially after his accident. "We made several attempts to get him to take proper care or limit the number of animals he had so he could take better care of them. But it ultimately ended up in charges being filed."

This Christmas, Lee will once again don his plush red suits and his boots with the jingle bells and become Santa. He won't be at any malls, but he's got some Christmas tree-lighting ceremonies, downtown celebrations, private parties and retirement-home visits lined up.

Unlike in past years, however, Rudolph, Dasher, Dancer, Prancer, Vixen, Comet, Cupid, Donder and Blitzen won't be with him. "I would have a hard time not being Santa," Lee says. "It's become part of who I am."

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