Last of condemned sheep trucked away

March 24, 2001

(from the Front Page section) (sxFront Page) (archived)

By ROBIN PALMER The Times Argus

EAST WARREN - A family's sadness turned the East Warren community angry Friday as federal agents seized the final flock of Vermont sheep suspected of harboring a fatal brain disorder.

U.S. Department of Agriculture officials, federal agents, Vermont State Police and a large truck from Iowa arrived at Larry and Linda Faillace's farm at 5:30 a.m. Four hours later, the Faillaces' 99 sheep and 27 rams were gone.

"My heart breaks for my children and grandchildren," said Linda Faillace's mother, Mary Cahilly of Fayston. "I think the worst is yet to come. They have to come out and see the empty barn."

The Faillace family shed tears even as about 30 supporters, some with signs and megaphones, yelled at federal agents and climbed through deep snow to get closer to where the sheep were being loaded onto the truck.

"Look what you've done to this family. How can you sleep at night?" one protester yelled.

Unlike Wednesday's seizure of sheep from a nearby farm, during which the sheep were marked and led slowly to the truck, Friday's roundup proceeded fairly quickly.

USDA workers - carrying a bucket of feed as a lure - brought the sheep along ramps set off by a clear plastic and metal fence leading directly from the barn into the truck. Members of the Faillace family took care of the animals in the barn and later were seen reaching through the holes in the truck and petting the animals.

The federal agents, meanwhile, sprayed disinfectant on the ramps and fencing before dismantling them and loading them into a truck.

A USDA spokesman said they were just doing their job.

"It's just something we have to do," Jim Rogers said. "It's needed to protect the livestock of our country. And that's what our agency does.

Larry Faillace said his family was not shocked about the animals being taken but was upset by it.

"This is not just important for us. This is a sad day for every sheep farmer in the world," said Larry Faillace, who also added he had not yet been paid for his sheep. "Our animals were stolen off our farm today."

The USDA has said it will pay the sheep owners fair market value for the animals that produce 10 times the milk of a domestic sheep and can be found no where else in the country.

Rogers repeated that promise Friday.

"They'll be compensated at fair market value," he said.

The Faillaces say they will continue to fight the U.S. Department of Agriculture to prove that their animals were healthy.

"The biggest issue is how is the USDA's going to test these sheep," Larry Faillace said. Those test results may not help his sheep, but "it may save some others," he said.

Protests against the sheep seizure were expected to continue in Iowa, as members of the group People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals planned to protest in Des Moines and in Ames, where the animals are being shipped to be killed and their carcasses tested for signs of mad cow disease.

The Faillaces had imported their East Friesian sheep from Belgium and Holland in 1996 in hopes of starting a new small farming industry in the state. The sheep are prodigious milk producers. But in 1998, the USDA quarantined the imported sheep amid growing concern about mad cow disease.

In October 1998, the East Warren sheep farmers were told that their animals were to be quarantined. Last summer, the Faillaces were one of three Vermont sheep owners to receive an emergency seizure order from the USDA after four animals culled from a flock in Greensboro reportedly tested positive for a transmissible spongiform encephalophathy (TSE), a class of illness that includes mad cow disease.

A Lyndonville family surrendered its small flock last summer following the seizure order. The Faillaces and Houghton Freeman, a Stowe philanthropist and owner of the Greensboro farm, challenged the seizure order in court.

A stay for the sheep first failed at a District Court level and then at the 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals in New York City, where a three-judge panel early this month refused to issue the stay for the sheep but did grant flock owners an expedited appeal. That appeal was to be heard on April 10.

Attorneys for the flock owners speculated the USDA might wait to take the animals, but that speculation ended Wednesday when federal officials seized Freeman's 233 animals.

Freeman's flock arrived in Ames, Iowa at 2 p.m. Thursday after a non-stop trip from Vermont that began before noontime Wednesday, Rogers said.

"They'll be euthanized by lethal injection," he said. As they are killed, brain tissue will be taken from the animals for immediate testing for a TSE.

To kill and test all of the animals will take up to a month, Rogers said. Another two years will be spent evaluating whether the sheep suffered from mad cow disease. Brain tissue from the sheep will be injected into mice. The mice will be observed for signs of the illness and then autopsied.