GREENSBORO, Vt. — Federal agents early Wednesday began taking away sheep feared infected with a version of mad cow disease. It was the first time U.S. farm animals had been seized because of concerns over the disease.
Houghton Freeman's flock of 233 sheep is one of two that have been at the center of a storm of protests since the Agriculture Department ordered that they be seized and destroyed. The department says the sheep, imported from Belgium, could be carrying a disease akin to mad cow disease.
Ed Curlett of the USDA, speaking from the Freeman farm, confirmed the seizure was under way. Inspectors arrived between 6 a.m. and 6:30 and trucks arrived around two hours later, he said. The first truck was loaded by 9:45 a.m.
Teams of veterinarians and other USDA officials dressed in brown coveralls were loading the sheep onto the trucks, as about two dozen law enforcement agents stood by.
There was no sign of protesters.
Freeman confirmed the agents had arrived at his farm but had no further comment.
"This is so unnecessary at this junction," said his lawyer Thomas Amidon, who had hoped the federal government would delay the seizure until after a federal appeals court heard arguments in the case next month.
The sheep were to be taken to federal laboratories in Iowa, where scientists will take samples from their brains to study. The animals will eventually be slaughtered.
The other disputed flock, with 140 sheep, is owned by Larry and Linda Faillace of East Warren. Those animals were to be seized later, and the owners will receive notice the night before the seizure, as Freeman did, Curlett said.
"We assume they're coming tonight," Linda Faillace said.
She accused the USDA of failing to heed science.
"That's what makes us so angry. USDA builds up public hysteria over a species that doesn't get the disease," she said.
While the seizure was a first, another flock of 21 sheep that had come from the same family of sheep was voluntarily turned over to government officials last summer by their Lyndonville owner. The sheep were destroyed.
The government says the sheep may have been exposed to mad cow disease through contaminated feed before they were imported from Europe in 1996. The owners say the sheep are healthy. They have urged more extensive tests.
The seizure at the Freeman farm came one day after supporters of the owners held the latest in a series of protests, marching to the Vermont offices of the state's three congressional delegates.
All three — Democratic Sen. Patrick Leahy, Republican Sen. James Jeffords and independent Rep. Bernard Sanders — have supported the seizure.
"Too little is yet known about this disease, but we do know that it is deadly and that it has the potential to spread quickly, widely and insidiously if not handled early. We wish there was a sound alternative to the removal of these flocks, but there is not," they said in a joint statement last week.
After losing their case in U.S. District Court in February, the Faillaces and Freeman appealed and asked that the seizure order be put on hold until the case had worked its way through the courts.
The circuit court refused to stay the seizure order last week but said it would hear the appeal.
The USDA maintains that four of the sheep culled from Freeman's flock showed signs of transmissible spongiform encephalopathy. That is a class of neurological diseases that includes both bovine spongiform encephalopathy, or mad cow disease, and scrapie, a sheep disease that is not harmful to humans.
The government says the sheep may have been exposed to mad cow disease through contaminated feed before they were imported from Europe in 1996, and it has quarantined the sheep since 1998.
The human version of BSE, which like the animal version has a lengthy incubation period, has killed almost 100 people in Great Britain since 1995, when it virtually wiped out the British beef industry.
Scrapie has been in the United States since at least 1947, while there are no known cases of mad cow disease, or bovine spongiform encephalopathy. Destroying the sheep would eliminate them as a possible source of BSE, USDA says.
BSE has been transmitted to sheep experimentally through the feeding of small amounts of infected cattle brain. Testing to determine whether the Vermont sheep have scrapie or BSE would take two to three years to complete, USDA says.
On the Net: USDA Web site on this issue: www.aphis.usda.gov/oa/tse/index.html