A group that’s been picketing outside Santa’s Land in Putney wants to find new homes for the animals there. The theme park’s owner and caretaker have both been charged with animal cruelty, following the deaths of more than 20 animals this winter. But officials who have been spot checking the shuttered park say the remaining animals are not in trouble.
Santa’s Land had been closed for a few years when Lillian Billewicz of Fair Haven bought the property last summer. The seasonal attraction opened on weekends beginning in July and closed after Christmas. This winter officials found the carcasses of 18 fallow deer, a pheasant and a potbellied pig at the shuttered park. And they found evidence that other animals were not getting enough food, water and care.
In April the court ordered Billewicz and her employee Brian Deistler to follow a veterinarian’s care plan for the surviving animals. But some local residents who’ve been feeding the animals surreptitiously say that’s not happening.
"We’re really trying to make people aware that this is still going on," says Sarah Massucco, a member of the group. "A lot of people who even live in Putney think it’s all been handled."
The group has been keeping tabs on the roadside attraction. They claim the owner and caretaker are rarely at the park, and that the animals still aren’t getting enough care.
The Santa’s Land Facebook Page originally said the park would open Memorial Day weekend. But it’s still closed, and its phone has been disconnected. Billewicz didn’t respond to requests for an interview.
Massucco says members of her group have asked the Windham County Sheriff to arrange a meeting with the owner to discuss moving the animals to new homes.
"Because it seems to us that it’s a real struggle for them to keep up with the care and feeding of these animals," Massucco says. "We feel that it's the right thing to do, to let us find homes for these animals where they will get attention and food and water twice a day."
But Windham County Sheriff Keith Clark says that’s not his job. Clark’s department conducted the investigation that led to the charges. But the case is now in the hands of the state’s attorney. Clark says one of his officers has been checking the park regularly, as ordered by the court, to see that the care plan is being followed.
"And to date has found nothing of significance since our initial findings up there," he says. "The animals appear to be well taken care of."
Clark says he’s more concerned about the people feeding the animals, however good their intentions may be.
"I encourage people to stop doing that," Clark says emphatically. "One, you’re trespassing when you go on the property, and two, you do not know the nutritional needs of all the animals. You can’t just feed them what you think they should eat."
The Windham County Humane Society is also watching the situation at Santa’s Land.
The non-profit agency has no power to intervene. But it’s getting lots of calls from worried animal lovers. Humane society director Annie Guion has asked the sheriff to bring her along on a site check.
"Because there’s so much disconnect," she says, "Between the sheriff’s department, which is telling us that everything is fine and the public who is saying that everything’s not fine."
Guion says she’d like to see for herself how the animals are doing.
Billewicz and Deistler have pleaded not guilty to the charges of animal cruelty.