Animal lovers protest at Santa's Land
PUTNEY -- Pam Kissell was excited last year when she heard that Santa's Land had been purchased and the new owners were going to reopen the kitschy, roadside theme park and petting zoo.
Within the first few months she visited with her son, daughter-in-law and grandchildren, and Kissell said it felt great to have Santa's Land back.
But on Saturday Kissell stood across the street from the park, holding a sign that read, "Say no to neglect."
Kissell was one of about a dozen protesters who showed up Saturday to encourage people not to visit Santa's Land and to try to bring attention to what the group says is the ongoing animal cruelty and neglect that has been going on beyond the park's fence.
"When this first came out in the paper, I'm sure everybody who read it was horrified by it, but then people got complacent," Kissell said. "People think everything's OK, but it's not OK. We want people to boycott them."
On March 1 a Windham County Sheriff deputy, and Putney's Health Officer, Tom Goddard, entered Santa's Land and found 18 dead animals.
Many of the living animals were in poor condition as well, court records show.
Santa's Land owner, Lillian Billewicz, and her assistant, Brian Deistler, were cited for animal cruelty.
The two appeared in court on April 28, pleaded not guilty, and were released with conditions, which include having to write a care plan for animals and having to allow unannounced visits by law enforcement to check on the care of the animals.
Following the reports that Billewicz and Deistler were cited for animal cruelty, a Facebook page was started to support the animals and some local residents began regularly visiting Santa's Land, even though it was closed, and caring for the animals through the fence.
People would leave daily Facebook comments when they went by to feed and water the animals.
Kissell said that even though Billewicz is claiming the animals are being cared for, the conditions have not improved.
Kissell, and many of the other protesters who spoke Saturday, said the animals should be removed and people should not visit Santa's Land.
"People would come by on a daily basis and monitor what was going on," Kissell said. "The couple of times that I have come down there was no food. There was no water. We don't want to cause trouble today, we just want people to know."
The protesters called the action for Saturday because Santa's Land was supposed to open for the season.
On Friday there was an announcement on the Santa's Land Facebook page that the theme park and petting zoo would not open due to the report of thunderstorms and rain that past weekend.
Calls to the park's listed phone number were not answered Saturday.
There was a posting on the Santa's Land Facebook page Friday that read, "Our animals are doing very well. Our deers' new antlers are coming in and their spring coats with the white spots are gorgeous. We have moved the peacocks and pheasant to the large cages and they are enjoying it. They fan their plumes and they glisten in the afternoon sun. The goats, donkeys, ponies, and llama are all good. Thank you for support."
Many of the protesters who stood across the street from Santa's Land Saturday said they were part of the group that was providing water and food to the animals since the news came out in early March.
There was a core group of 12 or 15 people who were actively checking on the animals over the past few months, but in early May the Windham County Sheriff's Department warned the group not to trespass.
The protest Saturday was relatively quiet.
Windham County Sheriff Corporal Melissa Martin stopped by to remind the group to stay off the property.
Martin said she has been visiting the property two or three times a week and the animals did have better living conditions.
Sarah Massucco brought a sign that read "Boycott Santa's Land," and said she has been trying to care for the animals since the news came out in March.
Massucco said the group tried to reach out to Billewicz, to offer help in the way of grain or hay, and to offer their assistance in providing a care plan for the animals.
Massucco said there has been no response and at this point she said the group wants the animals removed.
"We not dealing with the owner, and the caretaker, and what happens to them," Massucco said. "They say the animals are being cared for, but it's only because they want to open. They either don't know what they're doing or they don't care. I think the animals should be re-homed. I don't think they're safe here."
And Sue Stebbins, of Saxtons River, said the group is going to have a presence all summer until the animals are given to new owners.
"We're going to keep coming," Stebbins said. "As long as it takes."
Howard Weiss-Tisman can be reached at email@example.com or 802-254-2311, ext. 279.
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