by Bob McCarty
Debe Bell will probably never forget Thursday, July 21. It was the day she found herself surrounded by people from her local law enforcement agency, and they weren’t there to help.
Unlike John Dollarhite of Nixa, Mo., and several magicians across the country who’ve been hounded and threatened with massive fines by agents from the USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, Bell had to go face to face with her hare-brained local sheriff.
An anonymous Crime Stoppers hotline tip led animal control officers from the Jefferson County (Colo.) Sheriff’s Office to descend upon Bell’s one-acre farm at about 10:30 that morning and, before the day was over, remove nearly 200 rabbits from the property. The 59 year old was being accused of 24 misdemeanor charges of cruelty to animals, including charges that she somehow mistreated two meat rabbits already inside her freezer. More on the hotline later.
Bell had purchased the 1.01-acre property 12 miles north of Denver nearly 40 years earlier with plans to raise as much livestock as she wanted. After all, it was zoned for agricultural purposes (“A-2”) and had everything she needed, including a four-bedroom, tri-level home and a 600-square-foot barn. It looked like a great place to raise a family.
About 15 years later, Bell formed Six Bells Farm Candle Company and Rabbitry as a licensed farm business. Launched as an offshoot of a 4-H project via which she taught her four children how to take care of something other than themselves, it grew into an operation that involved raising more than a dozen varieties of rabbits, primarily for personal meat consumption but also for use in educating children — including kids involved in 4-H — and members of the general public nationwide.
As the years passed, Bell’s expertise and reputation grew alongside her rabbit farm. Not only did she become president of the local Long’s Peak Rabbit Club, but she became known as the go-to “resource person” for 4-H kids in Colorado who were interested in rabbits. Her reputation as a top expert when it comes to understanding and caring for rabbits spread throughout Colorado and across the United States. But that was before the raid.
The Day of the Raid
When Bell, 59, woke to begin that day almost three weeks ago, she had no idea government agents would soon swoop down on her tiny farm and effectively put an end to the pursuit of happiness in which she had been engaged for more than 25 years.
An instructor and lab coordinator at Metropolitan State College in Denver, Bell was in Boulder doing research when she was interrupted around 1 p.m.
“My neighbor called and said, ‘They’re seizing your animals! You need to get home!’” Bell recalled.
When Bell asked for more details, the neighbor explained that animal control officers and deputies from the sheriff’s office had arrived around 10:30 a.m. and were preparing to seize her rabbits.
About 45 minutes from home, Bell wrapped up her research as quickly as she could and drove home to find out more about who was taking her rabbits and why. She wanted to save the rabbits, each of which she knew by name, breed, tattoo and sex.
Upon arriving home at about 1:40 p.m., she found the animal control officers being unreasonable and milling about on her property — without a search warrant. The “salt in the wound” that the situation had become was the fact that the sheriff’s office officials were accompanied by volunteers from the local branch of the House Rabbit Society — a nationwide group comprised of people who, according to Bell, think rabbits need to be raised like small children.
Much “discussion” took place during the day and, when the animal control officers told Bell she had “too many animals for your zoning,” she begged to differ.
“No, you need to check your zoning regulations,” she told them. “I moved in before you changed the zoning. I can have as many animals as I want. I have more than an acre. I’m zoned A-2.”
Apparently stumped by her knowledge of the local zoning, she said they told her they would set the zoning issue aside.
When she told them her business was a livestock operation, they told her they disagreed and began to push the proverbial envelope.
Bell said one officer told her, “We found a dead rabbit,” and acted as if that was the “nail in the coffin” for his case. She responded bluntly, saying, “Rabbits die” — a fact she learned while growing up in Central Texas, where everybody is aware of that fact.
That prompted the officer in charge to tell Bell her rabbits were going to be seized, spayed or neutered, and then put up for adoption.
“What for?” Bell asked.
Instead of answering her directly, the officer responded to her question with one of his own.
“When was the last time you were in the barn?”
“This morning at 5 o’clock when I watered them,” Bell answered.
“Well, they have no water,” the officer countered.
“They’re fine,” Bell replied. “They have a swamp cooler and three fans.”
What’s a swamp cooler? According to Bell, it’s an air conditioning device that blows air over moist pads to lower temperatures in environments such as barns. More on this later, too.
At that point, Bell said, the officers had been in her barn for more than three hours, had opened up the doors, messed with the barn’s water system and had, effectively, turned off the water to the swamp cooler.
When their often-heated conversation turned to the temperature inside the barn, Bell said she told the officer that her barn’s cooling system could not keep up if it had to air condition the back yard where the outdoor temperature was 94 degrees. That prompted more than one officer to literally scream at her, saying, “It’s 84 degrees in there!”
“Yeah,” Bell replied, stunned that the officers were apparently concerned about rabbits suffering in 84-degree heat.
When the officer asked if she had any idea how many animals she had, she answered, “One-hundred sixty-three and probably 19 or 20 babies.”
Bell said she went a step further by telling the officer she could tell him the location of every animal in that barn. In addition, she told him the cages were tagged, numbered and sexed — with either pink tape or blue tape on them — and that she knew each rabbit in that barn by name.
Though officers couldn’t have overlooked the fact that the rabbit enclosures were clean and the barn was equipped with cooling, fly-control and watering systems, Bell said they seemed intent on making sure she didn’t do anything crazy to get in their way.
Bell said she wasn’t allowed to move, was threatened with being arrested at least four times, could not go inside her barn and, if she wanted to go anywhere else, had to ask officers for permission.
When Bell told one of the four sheriff’s deputies on scene that she wasn’t comfortable with House Rabbit Society members being on her property, she said the deputy looked her in the eye and said, “It is what it is.”
Hoping to document her experience, Bell said she took three photos — two of which appear above — of the area around her barn. Soon after, she was told by a sheriff’s deputy, under threat of arrest, that she had better stop.
“They told me four, five or six times (that) they were taking the animals no matter what,” Bell said, noting that she pointed out to them several times that there was nothing wrong with the animals or the conditions in which they were living.
When an officer told Bell the rabbits were living in “deplorable conditions,” she told him he was wrong.
“They are not living in deplorable conditions,” she said. “Their cages are clean. The trays are underneath them. We’re cleaning this weekend.”
Bell went on to explain to the officer that kids from the local 4-H organization who are involved in raising rabbits come out every weekend to help clean cages and do other things related to the care of the rabbits.
$24,000 Per Month
Several times during the day, animal control officers approached Bell and asked her to sign the rabbits over to them. When she asked what it was going to cost her if she didn’t, their reply stunned her.
“They said, ‘Five dollars a day per rabbit,’” Bell recalled, “and I said, ‘That’s $815 per day. Take ‘em! I can’t afford that.”
As a result of recently putting two boys through Colorado State University, Bell said, she told the officers she has a “mountain of debt” already and could not afford more than $24,000 per month — for a minimum of one month. The entire herd of rabbits was worth only $17,000.
At approximately 4:30 p.m., Bell said, a sheriff’s deputy arrived with the long-awaited search warrant and, within a half hour, the assembled animal control officers and volunteers began hauling out the rabbits in an effort that lasted about four hours.
The ‘Official’ Story
When I contacted sheriff’s office spokesperson Mark Techmeyer by phone early Tuesday afternoon, he explained how an anonymous tip led to his agency obtaining a search warrant.
“They reacted on a Crime Stoppers tip and went out there, and they saw what they believed to be some issues,” Techmeyer said. “Then they were able to take that information back to the judge and get a warrant issued.”
Thanks to a new Crime Stoppers program launched in June 2011, he said, individuals can call a statewide animal abuse hotline and, while remaining anonymous, can report cases of suspected animal abuse.
While I had him on the phone, I asked Techmeyer if any of the employees at the sheriff’s animal control division were rabbit experts, Techmeyer never answered the question. Instead, he quibbled, saying, “That depends upon how you define ‘experts,’” and then changed the subject.
None of the animal control employees — or the volunteers accompanying them — knew much about rabbits, according to Bell. In fact, she said the rabbits were severely mishandled during their removal.
For instance, 10-day-old babies “still in a nest box with their mommy” were wrapped in a towel and placed inside a cat crate and stood their mother on top of them.
“I looked at ‘em and I said, ‘You just issued a death sentence for those babies,’” Bell said, explaining that the mother would stomp the babies.
In response, the sheriff’s office employee said, “That’s their mom. Why would she do that?”
“Because they’re rabbits,” Bell replied.
“They loaded them in cardboard boxes, put them in a horse trailer and hauled them off to the fairgrounds,” Bell said, “where they housed them in a concrete, non-air conditioned horse stall barn.”
In addition to being placed in a hot environment, Bell said, her rabbits were placed in dog and cat crates with solid-bottom floors, meaning, “The minute they urinate, they’re standing in their own urine.”
The Next Step
Asked what her next step might be, Bell said her attorney, Elizabeth Kearney of Burthoud, Colo., has written several letters on her behalf, trying to get a meeting with Scott Storey, the district attorney for Jefferson and Gilpin Counties, but “keeps hitting brick walls.”
“They don’t want to return her calls,” she said. “They don’t want to talk to her.”
In addition, Bell said, sheriff’s office officials will not provide any information to Bell about the condition of her rabbits and will not allow her veterinarian of nearly 25 years to examine them.
Why might that be? Bell thinks she knows the answer.
“I think, honestly, they dug themselves a deep hole,” she said, “and they don’t quite know how to crawl out of it.”
“They’ve destroyed me emotionally, socially and professionally,” Bell said, listing numerous ways in which local animal rights activists have publicized information about the case in an effort to make her and her four children — all adults who haven’t lived under her roof for several years — look bad. But that’s not all.
“They’ve made 4-H kids all across Colorado just sob,” she said, “because I am their 4-H connection.”
Bell noted that 12 of the seized rabbits belong to 4-H kids who were planning to show them at upcoming fairs — two at the Jefferson County Fair that begins Thursday and the remaining 10 at the Colorado State Fair which runs from Aug. 26 to Sept. 5 in Pueblo.