Bill Lee, mall Santa whose animals were seized, gets two of his reindeer back

In June, Bill Lee lost all of his reindeer -- a tale told in this week's cover story, "Santa is Grounded." But the mall Santa from Idaho Springs has a reason to be grateful this week: Two of his reindeer are back, thanks to a friend who purchased them from the person who had them after they were seized in an animal cruelty investigation. On Wednesday night, Lee and his pair of reindeer were hanging out on Broadway outside El Diablo restaurant.

The festive group was on hand for El Diablo's annual Holiday Spectacular, which included a Griswold-esque lighting of the historic First Avenue Hotel and a free reindeer petting zoo.

Lee lives on a ranch that until a few months ago was also home to more than one hundred animals, including reindeer and donkeys. He bears a striking resemblance to Santa (minus the belly like a bowl full of jelly) and makes money portraying the Man in Red at malls, festivals, parties and tree-lighting ceremonies. In addition to Santa, he has several other characters, including a mountain man called Red Tail. Before his animals were seized earlier this year, Lee also ran petting zoos and burro rides for children.

Last April, Lee was gravely injured in an auto accident. As he was recovering, Clear Creek County animal control officers received a complaint from a woman who said some of Lee's donkeys were thin and losing their hair. Others had no shelter, she said, and their pens were dirty. Her concerns set off a year-long chain of events that ended when the county seized all of Lee's animals -- including three cats, his prize-winning burros and a fifteen-year-old dog he'd had since it was a puppy.

Lee was charged with 32 counts of animal cruelty and ordered to pay more than $30,000 per month -- the cost, the county says, of paying various shelters and sanctuaries to care for his animals so they wouldn't be sold or given up for adoption during the court case. Lee couldn't afford that, and most of his animals are now gone.

Except for two male reindeer. Lee tells us that a friend recently bought the deer from the woman who'd adopted or bought them (Lee doesn't know which) following the seizure. Lee says he was told he couldn't feed or care for animals while his court case is pending. But he says he is allowed to transport and handle them while portraying his various characters, including Santa. A live-in ranch hand will care for the deer, Lee says.

On Wednesday night, Lee was beaming. In a pen on the sidewalk outside El Diablo, he chatted with the steady stream of adults and children who stopped by to pet his reindeer. He wore a green velvet costume and told kids that he was Santa's chief reindeer wrangler. When adults inquired why the reindeer don't have antlers, Lee explained that the two are in-tact males; the woman who had the deer before Lee got them back cut their antlers off. "They were the breeding boys," he says. "They could fight and hurt the girls."

Currently, Lee's court case is effectively on hold. Last month, Clear Creek County Court Judge Rachel Olguin-Fresquez found that the law used to seize Lee's animals was unconstitutional because it didn't provide due process for animal owners. The law was so flawed that state legislators have since amended it to fix the issues. Even so, the Clear Creek County District Attorney's office is appealing the judge's ruling.

But those legal maneuverings could take a while, and this Christmas was shaping up to be the first in twenty years that Lee would spend without his reindeer. Now, thanks to a friend, Santa won't have to fly solo after all.

More from our Follow That Story archive: "Reindeer have nice racks, and other fun facts about these non-mythical creatures."

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