Update: PETA is still making problems for mall Santa and former Westword cover boy Bill Lee.
Five days after calling him out for an incident in which his reindeer escaped from a Santa appearance in Dillon and had to be tracked down the next morning (get the details below), the animal rights organization is requesting that the USDA decline to renew Lee's license to exhibit animals. The Idaho Springs rancher's license is set to expire on December 20 and PETA thinks that given his record, it should expire for good.
In a letter to the USDA, PETA notes that between February 2011 and November 2013, USDA officials inspected Lee's facility, called the Laughing Valley Ranch, 26 times and found it in violation of the Animal Welfare Act on twenty of those inspections. It also points out that Lee was recently convicted for animal cruelty. Lee makes his living playing Santa and other characters, and exhibiting animals.
His animal-cruelty-charges saga, which we recounted in our 2012 cover story, "Santa is Grounded," is much more complicated than PETA lets on. But basically, a complaint about some of his donkeys set off a chain of events that led to more than one hundred of his animals being seized by Clear Creek County animal control officers and Lee being slapped with a total of 32 charges of animal cruelty. This past March, he agreed to plead guilty to one count of misdemeanor animal cruelty in exchange for a two-year deferred judgement. In addition, the county agreed to return more than thirty of Lee's animals and pay him $15,000 for those it was unable to get back.
See PETA's letter to the USDA below, and continue reading for details on the incident in which Lee's reindeer escaped from him while he was playing Santa in Dillon.
Continue to read our original post about the reindeer escape. Original post, 10:50 a.m. December 13: Bill Lee, the mall Santa whose reindeer were seized for animal cruelty before last Christmas, is once again portraying the Man in Red at tree-lighting ceremonies, Christmas festivals and charitable events. Thanks to a plea agreement signed earlier this year, Lee got several of his reindeer back. He now has a total of eight, including one who caused a bit of controversy last week when it escaped from a Santa appearance in Dillon and had to be tracked down the next morning. PETA is now calling for the town of Dillon to pledge to never again use live animals at its events.
"A mall filled with thousands of noisy shoppers, bright lights and excited children is an entirely unsuitable environment for reindeer or any other animals, as they can become disoriented and be seriously injured or even killed," PETA wrote in a letter to Dillon Mayor Ronald Holland.
The letter notes that Lee has been cited in the past for not properly caring for his animals. It's a long tale -- and one we told in a 2012 cover story, "Santa is Grounded."
It all started when Lee, who owns a ranch in Idaho Springs, was injured in an auto accident in April 2011 that compromised his ability to take care of his animals. Though he attempted to find foster homes for some of them and hired a live-in ranch hand, a woman who'd been to his ranch reported to animal control that some of Lee's donkeys had "severe hair loss."
Her complaint set off a chain of events that led to more than one hundred of his animals being seized by Clear Creek County animal control officers and Lee being slapped with a total of 32 charges of animal cruelty.
Four of his animals, including two reindeer, were euthanized and Lee was ordered to pay more than $30,000 per month in bond if he wanted to keep the rest of them from being sold or adopted during the court case.
Lee didn't have that kind of money, and he lost many of his animals. In March, Lee agreed to plead guilty to one count of misdemeanor animal cruelty in exchange for a two-year deferred judgement. In addition, the county agreed to return more than thirty of Lee's animals and pay him $15,000 for those it was unable to get back.
Continue for more about PETA and Santa Bill Lee.
The Dillon incident, Lee says, has been blown out of proportion.
"Reindeer are not caribou; they're not wild animals," he says. "They're domesticated. The reindeer was not being overly controlled and abused, but it got excited when some children ran up and it got loose. If I wasn't there with a line of kids, I might have been able to get it right away."
Instead, he says, the bystanders panicked and someone called 911.
Efforts to track the deer that night were unsuccessful, but Lee and others were able to locate the animal the next morning. With another reindeer in tow to help coax the spooked reindeer to follow him, Lee was able to retrieve the animal. As it followed him and the other deer back toward their vehicle, Lee simply reached over and grabbed its lead rope.
"The PETA attitude is that this is some wild animal that you've taken in and turned into a domestic creature -- and that's not fair," Lee says. "These animals are having a productive life. They live longer than caribou living in the wild."
Lee will continue to appear -- with and without his reindeer, depending on the gig -- as Santa throughout the holiday season. Tonight, he's scheduled to portray Santa at the kickoff of the Denver Santa Claus Shop and he's got a full calendar this weekend, as well.
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"I'm out keeping busy," he says. "I've got one more night free through the rest of the year."
More from our Follow That Story archive: "Reindeer have nice racks, and other fun facts about these non-mythical creatures."Follow me on Twitter @MelanieAsmar or e-mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org