More than 100 animals were seized last week from the Laughing Valley Ranch southwest of Idaho Springs, whose owner, Bill Lee, is beloved locally for his portrayal of Santa Claus.
On June 6 the Clear Creek Sheriff’s Office, along with 13 other agencies, seized geese, dogs, llamas, rabbits, mules, horses, goats, sheep, chickens, a pony, alpacas, cats — and reindeer. Officials indicated there were concerns about the animals living in unsanitary conditions.
Lee, who is widely known for his portrayals of Santa Claus and other colorful characters, also features some of the animals in petting zoos at local events.
“I didn’t really fully understand it,” Lee said Friday of the seizure of his animals. “I have been addressing some issues (the county has) brought about. … I thought that my animals were in good shape and well cared for.”
Lee said that of the animals taken, 25 were chickens and seven were donkeys that he was taking care of for another party.
Sheriff’s Capt. Bruce Snelling said the animals were seized last Wednesday morning by more than a dozen law-enforcement officials. The Sheriff’s Office said an investigation will continue, and that it could be several weeks before the district attorney makes a decision on filing charges.
Lee said he hoped to have his attorney file a motion in county court to have the animals returned, so he can continue to operate his one-man business at the ranch, which includes a petting zoo and burro rides.
Meanwhile, the animals will stay at organizations such as the Harmony Equine Center and Peaceful Prairie Sanctuary, and in animal shelters in Summit, Pitkin, Jefferson, Gilpin and Garfield counties.
“It is truly our belief from the Sheriff’s Office that Mr. Lee is passionate about all the animals, but I think his passion is much greater then his ability to care for them,” Snelling said.
Early last year, Lee, then 62, was gravely injured when he was run over by his own truck. The truck broke all his ribs, cracked his breastbone in several places and collapsed his lungs. The local community helped with everything from financial donations to physical labor at the ranch.
Lee has made an amazing recovery and once again took part in local burro-racing events.
Other agencies involved in removing the animals included animal-control units from Gilpin, Summit and Jefferson counties, and the Bureau of Animal Protection from the Colorado Department of Agriculture.