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Mad-cow fear leads agents to seize sheep

EAST WARREN, Vt. — Federal agents early today seized a second flock of Vermont sheep suspected of having been exposed to a form of mad cow disease.

The owners had fought to keep the flock, urging officials to first complete tests on the other confiscated sheep, but their request was denied.

At dawn today, police accompanied agents from the Department of Agriculture past about two dozen protesters. On their faces, some protesters wore red dye similar to that put on sheep being hauled away.

After the sheep were loaded onto a truck, about two dozen protesters briefly blocked the road, singing and waving banners that read, among other things, "abuse of judicial process" and "unlawful restraint of trade, harassment."

"This is a government agency completely out of control. We have no check on this agency," said protester John Barkhausen. "It doesn't follow its own rules or regulations."

The 126 East Friesian milking sheep will be taken to a USDA lab in Iowa, where they will be killed. Their brains will be tested for one of a family of diseases known as transmissible spongiform encephalopathies, not harmful to humans.

The first flock, 234 sheep seized Wednesday from a farm in Greensboro, reached the federal lab on Thursday.

"We are very sympathetic to the owners. This is very difficult for them. This is very difficult for us as well. However, it is our duty, it is our mission to protect American agriculture," said USDA spokesman Ed Curlett.

Owner Larry Faillace said his family was cooperating with agents but not helping them haul away the sheep.

"We've never had a positive result on this farm," Faillace said as agents loaded sheep onto a truck. The government "has never wanted to do anything except kill these animals."

Three Faillace children — Jackie, Francis and Heather — each held young lambs marked with red dye.

"This is not justice," said Francis Faillace. "Where are our rights?"

The government says some of the sheep may have been exposed to mad cow disease through contaminated feed before they were imported from Europe in 1996. They have been quarantined since 1998.

Nearly 100 people in Europe have died of the human form of BSE since 1995, but no cases have been confirmed in the United States.

Although they aren't sure whether the Vermont sheep are infected, USDA officials have argued that even the remote chance that they could be carrying a mad cow variant poses too great a risk.

Thursday evening, friends and neighbors gathered to hold a candlelight vigil for the sheep.

The Faillaces have maintained throughout a two-year legal battle with the USDA that there is little solid scientific evidence that the sheep have TSE.

Separately, federal officials are monitoring about two dozen imported cows for signs of mad cow disease, although they have shown no symptoms, said Linda Detwiler, the Agriculture Department's chief expert on the illness.

Detwiler said that she believes 22 cows were imported to Texas, four to Vermont and two to Minnesota.

The cows are being monitored because the USDA doesn't know whether they were given contaminated feed before they were imported at least five years ago, apparently from the Netherlands.

The USDA had traced the cows years ago and quarantined them, Detwiler said.


On the Net:

USDA: www.usda.gov