Grim discovery at VT holiday theme park brings charges

A grim discovery this week at a holiday-theme park in Vermont has led to charges against the facility's owner and caretaker.

On March 1, police found the bodies of a dozen dead deer, a pot-bellied pig and a pheasant on the grounds of Santa's Land park in Putney.

At Christmas those same animals may well have been hand fed and doted on by children.

Now the Windham County Sheriff's Department has cited caretaker Brian Deistler 24, and owner Lillian Billewicz, 55, with animal cruelty,

The reviews posted on Trip Advisor tell the story of a beloved 57-year-old amusement park that had fallen on hard times.

For some a visit to Santa's Land amusement park clearly was a trip down memory lane. To others it was a dirty, dilapidated, antiquated attraction.

Parents and grandparents who remembered visiting the park in their youth brought their children and grandchildren and enjoyed old-time family fun.

I've always loved these "kinder, quieter" theme parks like the long gone Enchanted Forest in Ellicott City, Md., and Williams Grove Amusement Park in Williams Grove, Pa. These were the kinds of places with giant, colorful, storybook characters, where little kids could play without fear of being trampled by teenagers.

So it's no surprise when the public cheered Santa's Land's latest owners who last year pledged to revive this Vermont institution founded by Newark, NJ broadcaster Jack Poppele in 1957. (More on Santa's Land past and present described by Seven Days here).

In some Trip Advisor reviews parents said their children loved seeing "goats, deer and birds."

In September 2013 one visitor wrote: "My son enjoyed the rides and the gentleman running the rides made it extra special. He also gave us tips on feeding the deer which was appreciated by us and the deer!"

Billewicz recently defended her actions on the Santa's Land Facebook page, saying a veterinarian was contacted shortly after the death of the first animal and that lab work was done to rule out disease.

"The harshness of the winter has taken its toll but please be assured all animals are being fed, watered and sheltered appropriately. Neither the caretaker nor myself have been arrested, rather we are cited to explain our side of this situation." she wrote.

In January the park posted a plea for donations to feed its animals on its Facebook page

The Brattleboro Reformer reports that Billewicz will be allowed to keep the remaining animals, which include donkeys, ponies and goats, after a veterinarian has established a feeding and care plan.

When times are tough at tourist attractions it's not uncommon for animals to suffer.

Consider the string of USDA violations before and after two tragic - and unresolved - fires in 2011 at the Animal Kingdom in South Jersey. The first killed a mother giraffe and her baby and the second just months later killed Bridget Sipp, one of the zoo's owners.

Last fall the zoo was shuttered, but two remaining giraffes and a parrot were visible from the overgrown entranceway. The property is for sale and Sipp's husband, Burton Sipp, was selling off the remaining animals, my colleague Jan Hefler reports.