Less than a week after calling on the town of Dillon to ban the use of live animals at public events, the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals urged the U.S. Department of Agriculture Monday to deny Santa’s reindeer license renewal.
Santa Claus in this case refers to Bill Lee, owner of Laughing Valley Ranch in Idaho Springs, who is well known for his portrayal of Santa during the holidays. Lee often brings at least one of his six reindeer with him during public appearances. His Animal Welfare Act reindeer exhibitor license is set to expire Friday, Dec. 20.
PETA’s involvement in the ongoing reindeer saga stems from an incident earlier this month in which one of Lee’s reindeer escaped from an enclosure during the Lighting of Dillon ceremony. Lee was hired by the town to appear as Santa. The escaped reindeer was not found and captured until the next day.
Although PETA officials were originally outraged by the reindeer serving as a prop, further investigation by the animal rights group uncovered that Lee has faced animal cruelty charges in the past.
In a letter to Robert Gibbens, western regional director for the USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service in Fort Collins, PETA urged the USDA to block the renewal of Lee’s reindeer exhibitor license citing a June 2012 incident in which more than 100 animals were seized from Lee’s ranch by local law enforcement officers. Lee was charged in Clear Creek County Court with 16 counts of animal cruelty, a Class 1 misdemeanor, following the seizure. He ultimately pleaded guilty to one count of animal cruelty and was ordered to serve two years of unsupervised probation.
PETA also pushed Gibbens to consider blocking Lee’s license renewal by citing that between February 2011 and November 2013 the USDA inspected Laughing Valley Ranch 26 times, noting Animal Welfare Act violations on 20 of those 26 occasions.
Among the violations cited by the USDA were failure to provide adequate veterinary care, failure to provide potable water and failure to provide adequate protection from the elements.
“Laughing Valley Ranch is a monument to animal suffering and must not be allowed to renew its exhibitor’s license,” said Delcianna Winders, PETA foundation director of Captive Animal Law Enforcement, in the release. “Denying animals such basics as potable water and veterinary care for their medical conditions is not only despicable, but also precisely what the Animal Welfare Act was designed to stop.”
Lee, who is a self-proclaimed animal lover, has remained mostly quiet since his legal troubles began in early 2011, but decided to defend himself Monday against PETA’s accusations that he is cruel to animals and unfit to care for his reindeer.
“I’ve kept my mouth shut for years and years,” Lee said. “I’ve tried to be nice and friendly with everybody on both sides of the fence, but it’s gotten pretty bad when they’re (PETA) going to pick on Santa for one of his reindeer getting a little spooky and getting loose.
“Horses get loose, dogs get loose, cows wander out of their pasture; it is no different than any of those situations and I don’t think they have the right to use this incident as an excuse to push their opinions and agendas.”
Lee addressed all of PETA’s allegations Monday by first saying he thinks he was unfairly targeted in 2011 by an overzealous animal control officer with an agenda. Although he admits his ranch may not mirror the image of a typical petting zoo, its rustic motif does not mean it is any less safe for his animals.
However, Lee did say that he has allowed animals to live longer than they probably should have in the past.
“I believe animals have the right to live and if they have the will to live, then I let them live,” Lee said. “I’ve kept animals alive longer than I probably should have, but that’s my right because they’re my property. That’s a key point to this issue because PETA wants to change the law to make animal owners caregivers, not property owners.”
From the town’s perspective, Dillon Mayor Ron Holland said Monday that although there were a lot of inaccurate reports in the media and in both of PETA’s recent letters — the reindeer did not jump a fence, there weren’t “thousands” of children clamoring for the opportunity to pet the reindeer and the reindeer wasn’t spooked by excessively bright lighting — town officials will address whether or not it wants live animals to be included in town events.
“As far as no longer using animals at events, as an animal lover I think that’s a reasonable request,” Holland said. “It’s something that certainly needs to be addressed and I personally think we probably should get rid of live animals.”
When asked if he knew about Lee’s prior animal cruelty charges, Holland said he was “totally unaware” of the case in neighboring Clear Creek County.