U.S. sheep seized in mad cow scare

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Wednesday March 21 11:19 AM ET


U.S. Sheep Seized in Mad Cow Scare

By WILSON RING, Associated Press Writer

GREENSBORO, Vt. (AP) - Federal officials on Wednesday seized a flock of sheep feared infected with a version of mad cow disease, the first such seizure of any U.S. farm animals.

Houghton Freeman's flock of 234 sheep is one of two at the center of protests over the Agriculture Department's order last July that they be seized and destroyed. The department says the sheep, imported from Belgium, could be carrying a disease akin to mad cow disease and had quarantined them since 1998.

A lawyer for Freeman who was monitoring the seizure called it ``sad, depressing and a rushed judgment.

``This is so unnecessary,'' said Thomas Amidon, who had hoped the federal government would delay the seizure until after a federal appeals court heard arguments next month.

USDA spokesman Ed Curlett said inspectors arrived shortly after 6 a.m. Two trucks were loaded by 11 a.m. and left the farm.

The sheep were to be taken to federal laboratories in Iowa so samples can be taken from their brains for study. The animals will eventually be destroyed.

Curlett said the seizure was the first of any cow or sheep in the United States under suspicion of having an illness related to mad cow disease.

The second disputed flock, believed to be about 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 Wednesday, standing in her small barn surrounded by several dozen sheep.She said she felt ``anger, frustration, disbelief,'' and 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.

USDA veterinarian Linda Detwiler said the agency stands by its tests.

While the seizure was a first, another flock of 21 sheep from the same family of sheep was voluntarily turned over to government officials last summer by their Lyndonville owner. The sheep were destroyed.

The seizure at the Freeman farm came one day after supporters of the owners held their latest protest, 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.

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 and the tests are not conclusive, and they have urged more extensive tests.

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 sheep 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.

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, but there are no known domestic cases of mad cow disease. USDA says destroying the sheep would eliminate them as a possible source of BSE.

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.

-- Swissrose (cellier3@mindspring.com), March 21, 2001

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