WHITING, Maine — The state of Maine Animal Welfare Division has seized three sheep and a kitten from a Whiting man, alleging the animals were “in jeopardy of dying.”
Farmer Don Bliss, however, said that the state agents were unfamiliar with the unique Jacob sheep breed, which is naturally lean and resembles a goat, and that his animals were well cared for.
“Jacob sheep are fine-boned and it is a normal condition for them to have a protruding hip or backbone,” Bliss said. “Ironically, these breed traits are what the state is using to say the sheep are starving. We are brokenhearted.”
Bliss said he fears the state’s alleged ignorance of the rare breed will result in the sheep’s death while in the state’s care.
Veterinarian Christine Fraser of the Animal Welfare Division said this week that she has been working with the Bliss family for a while on bringing the animals’ health back. She said that despite providing grain and advice, the animals were compromised.
“I was there when they were seized [last week], and they were in jeopardy of dying,” Fraser said.
She said the family disputed her assessment. “That is one of the problems,” Fraser said. “You can’t fix what you don’t acknowledge.”
But Bliss does dispute Fraser’s evaluation and treatment of his sheep.
“I was raised on a farm. I have been active in 4-H and Grange all my life. And I have raised sheep for more than 40 years,” Bliss said. “I’m not just a person off the street that decided to put sheep in my backyard.”
Bliss is disabled and bought the sheep four years ago as an incentive to keep himself moving. “I have degenerative arthritis in my spine,” he said. “These sheep were my therapy.”
Bliss and his wife, Janice Gardner, said they kept fresh water inside the sheep’s housing at all times and let them graze free-range on grass. The sheep also had access to hay provided by a Vermont hay farm throughout the summer, they said. Excess hay was not stored on the property, Bliss said, but at another home in Pembroke.
“When they came to take the animals last week, it took them three hours to catch three sheep,” Gardner said. “How could they possibly say they are emaciated?”
Gardner said that when local humane agent Chrissy Perry first came to the farm earlier this summer, it was in response to neighbors’ complaints.
“They said the sheep were baaing,” Gardner said. “They said the sheep had no water or hay. All of that was inside the shelter, not outside.”
Bliss said that Jacob sheep are a rare breed of small, black-and-white-spotted, multihorned sheep that are naturally lean.
Gardner said Perry brought grain to the farm this summer and ordered the family to feed it to the sheep.
The ewe became ill from the grain and died, Gardner said.
“She was breast-feeding a baby,” Gardner said. “That baby was in such good shape that the agents didn’t even realize it was a lamb. They thought it was full-grown.”
Gardner said that when the agents seized the animals, they also took the grain. She said they also cut through the farm fence and went through cupboards, closets, bureaus, the refrigerator and cabinets in the family’s home.
“They said they were looking for evidence that we had other animals that we were starving,” Gardner said.
The agents also seized a stray kitten that Gardner’s grandson had adopted, saying it was too thin.
“We just found it abandoned,” Gardner said. “We didn’t even have time to help it put on weight.”
Gardner said she now would attempt to have the animals examined by a third-party veterinarian to prove that their weight and size are appropriate for their breed.
Perry did not return a call for information.
Fraser said the case will now be reviewed by the Washington County District Attorney’s Office for possible criminal or civil charges, or a possession or surrender hearing.