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Goat 'sanctuary' triggers some concern
December 9, 2001
By STACEY CHASE Staff writer
CORINTH — Chris Weathersbee is worried the state is trying to get his goat. Or, rather, all 252 of them.
Officials from the Vermont Department of Agriculture and the Central Vermont Humane Society have twice visited Weathersbee’s farm — what he calls a goat sanctuary — in the past eight months, and said they were responding to concerns about the animals’ welfare. A third visit is tentatively planned for Dec. 19.
Weathersbee, however, believes his unconventional farming philosophy and maybe his eccentric lifestyle — he sleeps on the barn floor with the goats — are really responsible for the repeat visits and said he feels “mildly harassed.”
“My concern is that they’re going to take the animals — regardless of what I do,” said Weathersbee, 61. “They want me to be conventional, and I can’t oblige.
“They don’t like that I don’t kill them. The don’t like that I won’t castrate them,” he said. “They don’t like that I have too many of them.”
It’s a classic battle: a state agency, charged with helping to ensure the welfare of livestock, pitted against a farmer who thinks that as long as his animals are healthy and well-fed, it’s nobody’s business how many he has or how he chooses to operates his farm.
Weathersbee is the resident caretaker of Marymead Farm, a 29-acre farm near the Corinth Town Hall about 28 miles southwest of Barre, that is owned by his mother, Virginia novelist Mary Lee Settle.
It consists of 252 long-eared Nubian, or Nubian cross-bred, and cashmere goats — about 100 of whom, he said, were unwanted and donated, or rescued from the butcher — as well as 14 geese, 10 cats, four dogs, two horses, two oxen, two llamas, and innumerable bantam hens and roosters.
“There’s no question there’s a high number of animals,” said Ed Jackson, an animal health specialist with the agriculture department who has been out on both visits, “(but) nothing in my mind demonstrated cruelty to animals.”
The rub now seems to be the potential for trouble.
“There’s the opportunity for something to go wrong,” Jackson said. “It could happen.”
Under Vermont law, a person can be convicted of cruelty to animals if he or she deprives them of “adequate food, water, shelter, rest or sanitation, or necessary medical attention, or transports an animal in overcrowded vehicles”, among other things.
Animals can only be seized with a warrant if a law enforcement officer (which includes a humane society officer) believes they are being subjected to cruel treatment, or without a warrant if the officer witnesses a situation that he or she believes places an animal’s life in jeopardy.
The dispute began back on April 12, when Jackson and Neysha Stuart, an inspector with the humane society, first went to Weathersbee’s farm to investigate what Jackson said were fewer than a handful of complaints made over the phone. There have not been any subsequent complaints, he said.
The concerns largely centered on the sheer number of goats, injuries that required veterinary attention, and whether there was enough feed, Jackson said.
In an Inspection Report, Jackson noted that “concerns of over crowding & high risk environment for goats is reasonable.” He also wrote: “veterinary issues are present but not out of control at this point” and that “there is plenty of feed available.”
After assessing the situation, Jackson said he offered several suggestions to Weathersbee, including separating the bucks (males) and does (females), castrating more of the males, cleaning up the so-called “bedding pack” — the hay on the barn floor — and, possibly, downsizing the herd.
On Nov. 29, Jackson returned to Weathersbee’s farm — this time accompanied by Agriculture Commissioner Leon Graves, who said he routinely goes out on such field visits about six times a year.
“We are just watching it and trying to work with him at this time to get some things done,” Graves said. “There is no enforcement action pending.”
The suggestions, Graves said, were just some “friendly advice.”
But Weathersbee said Jackson asked him during that second visit what he would do if “someone” came to seize the goats — which Weathersbee took as a veiled threat. Jackson denied making such a remark.
“I said, ‘I will resist you by every means at my disposal,’” Weathersbee said he replied. “’If the sheriff comes, you’ll have to shoot me.’”
Jackson said “no progress” had been made on his suggestions between the two visits — a claim Weathersbee vehemently disputes.
Weathersbee said he increased barn space 30 percent by clearing out some debris and has started work on a pole addition to be covered with heavy plastic that’ll increase space by another 30 percent in an attempt to ease overcrowding.
In order to reduce the risk of injury, Weathersbee said he barred the goats from the hay loft, removed farm implements lying around, and replaced the old feeders that could trap goats’ heads with safer, hanging feeders. He showed the agriculture officials, he said, that the barn was full of high-quality hay and told them he had a cabinet stocked with $1,000 worth of new medicines and veterinary supplies.
“Ed (Jackson) seemed unimpressed by all this,” Weathersbee said. “He said he’d come back and see the progress — but his real message seemed to be delivered on the road on the way out. He said, ‘Get rid of half of the goats.’
“I do not attribute any evil motives to them,” he said of the officials. “They just cannot imagine that a slaughter-free facility with one guy looking after this many goats is nothing but a disaster waiting to happen.”
Agriculture department officials said they’ll continue to keep an eye on Weathersbee’s farm.
“What I wanted to make clear to Chris (Weathersbee) is that in the event there are any more complaints, and the suggestions aren’t followed through, I’d have no choice but to say Chris is not acting in an agriculturally-accepted manner,” Jackson said. “If an enforcement authority thought there was a reason to proceed with enforcement action, they could do that.
“If he doesn’t follow the suggestions, I don’t know what the department can do to defend him if he falls on hard times,” he added.
Contact Stacey Chase at email@example.com.
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