The neighbors reported witnessing baby goats dying on a farm in the center of Charlotte last summer. The kids’ screams were heard next door, and neighbors said they could see carcasses from their property.
Yet while the animals’ plight was in full public view, neighbors said getting officials to respond in a timely manner proved a frustrating task that resulted in more goat deaths — and exposed a deficient state system for reporting concerns of animal neglect.
René Kaczka-Valliere lives with his wife and 17-year-old daughter next to the farm. He said his daughter helped the farmers take care of the goats some days during the summer.
“My daughter was helping, so she would see that they had died,” he said of the goats. “There was kind of a period in there where it was probably three a day.”
Katherine Knox lives in Charlotte and owns about 50 sheep. Responding to concerns she had heard, Knox visited the goat farm at 279 Ferry Road last July. No one actually lives on the property on which the young goats — numbering in the dozens — were being raised. The farm sits nestled near the town hall, library and senior center, and just up the road from the fire station.
When she arrived at the end of the driveway, Knox said she could “hear these animals just screaming.” She walked to the fence and put her hand out.
“They all just kind of dove at my hand and my fingers,” she said. “They were just looking for something to suck on, something to eat.”
‘The welfare of the animals is deeply in question’
On the day of her visit, Knox said, she brought the situation to the attention of Mary Mead, the Charlotte town clerk, whose office is just a couple of doors down from the farm.
Knox said Mead told her the town had already received numerous complaints about the farm but that any concerns about cruelty to animals should be handled by the Vermont State Police.
“We have an animal control officer, but he just deals with issues with dogs,” Mead said in an interview with VTDigger.
Mead also told Knox that state police had said at the time that they did not have the capacity to respond to the goat problem.
“They were directing people to call the town clerk’s office,” Mead recalled, coming full circle to where Knox already was.
Knox said the local humane society was sympathetic but told her the problem was the town government’s responsibility. And when she reached out to Charlotte’s animal control officer, he responded in a July 21, 2022, email that his role was “clearly dictated as canine only.”
The next day, Knox turned to state veterinarian Kristen Haas and Joel Russo, a Vermont representative for the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Knox wrote a lengthy text that described how an “extreme population of goats” was being kept at the farm “with no food”; how next-door neighbors could see dead goats from their house; how town officials had received many complaints; and how state police said they couldn’t take on the problem.
“The welfare of the animals is deeply in question,” the text read. “I don’t know where else to turn but this does need to be investigated.”
Haas responded with a long text explaining that the responsibility for such an investigation belongs to the town’s humane officer. She said the humane officer can be the town’s animal control officer, or a local or state police officer, citing state law on the matter.
In a separate text, Haas clarified that the state police served in that capacity for the town of Charlotte and said she had reached out to them.
Three days later, after no further action had been taken, Knox sent another, more frustrated text to Haas and Russo, highlighting how the state police were not investigating.
“This is a case of blatant disregard for life,” Knox wrote. “This system is designed to fail if the only recourse a person has is to notify an agency who will do nothing.”
She received no reply.
‘There was no one person doing the job’
On the night of July 28, Knox’s daughter, 22-year-old Lark Thompson, got off her shift as a hostess at Waterworks in Winooski and drove south to Charlotte. Instead of returning to her own home near Mount Philo, she navigated down Ferry Road, past the town hall, past the post office to Kaczka-Valliere’s home, which she was house-sitting.
When Thompson arrived, she gathered the family’s dogs and let them outside. That is when, she said, she heard a scream.
The baby goats were calling out for food. Thompson said she walked over to the property and found dozens of them. She said they swarmed her in search of their next meal.
“They were so hungry,” Thompson said. By the next morning, she said, four of the goats were dead.
Thompson took photos and videos of what she saw, and sent those to the same agencies her mother had reached out to a week earlier.
The images apparently prompted a callback: Jim Cameron, the state’s animal health specialist, and JoAnne Nichols, the humane investigator at the Chittenden County Humane Society, both agreed to investigate.
On Aug. 2, 2022, nearly two weeks after Knox first tried to report the problem, Cameron visited the farm along with Nichols, State Trooper Christopher Sweeney and a veterinarian, according to a report of the visit written by Cameron.
The group met up with Mike Dunbar and Robert Mack. In the Agency of Agriculture’s report, Dunbar was listed as the property owner and Mack was named as the goats’ caretaker.
Dunbar is the president of Middlebury Fencing, according to the company website, and he is the owner of Charlotte Crossings, a Route 7 commercial center, according to a 2022 article about the farm in The Charlotte News.
Dunbar declined a request to be interviewed for this article.
According to the Charlotte News story, Dunbar said he had leased his farmland to a partnership of three men — Ko Gyi, his brother Ko Lay, and Mack — who planned to raise goats and pigs and poultry there.
Ko Gyi, an immigrant from Myanmar, told VTDigger in an interview that he owns the goats. He said his plan was to raise them for slaughter under halal restrictions for the Muslim community.
Ko Gyi attributed some of last summer’s goat deaths to coyotes. When asked about allegations of starvation on the farm, he said, “Starvation? I don’t know, man. There were too many.”
Mack is a former Charlotte Selectboard member and a prominent farmer in town, according to the Charlotte News article.
Mack told VTDigger he and Ko Gyi had been friends for 15 years. He said he was “not at all” involved with the caretaking of the goats over the summer, except for providing them with hay.
“There were too many goats there at the time,” Mack said in response to the deaths. “There was no one person doing the job.”
But the Agency of Agriculture report from Aug. 2 lists Mack as the only caretaker of the goats. Kaczka-Valliere, the neighbor whose daughter helped Mack take care of the goats over the summer, said that Mack did have “a few people doing shifts,” but that he was primarily the person looking after the goats.
The agency’s report includes certain findings from the farm, among them that some goats may have had diarrhea and coccidia, an intestinal tract infection. But they also found that the goats “had good shelter and were dry,” and that there were “no deceased animals observed at the location.”
The report outlined a list of recommendations for Dunbar and Mack, such as getting a private veterinarian, instituting a treatment plan and ensuring goats were getting adequate milk replacer powder in their formula and starting a “grain ration” for them.
The report concluded by saying “overall (agriculture) practices were acceptable” and that the property would be monitored by the Chittenden County Humane Society “for continued cooperation.”
A Vermont State Police report of the same visit conducted by Sweeney states that “some improvements need to be made but nothing of major concern.”
Thompson estimates at least half a dozen goats died in the five days before the visit. She said the state didn’t find any dead goats on the property because they notified Dunbar before the visit.
Thompson said that “after the state police and all these people started getting involved,” Dunbar asked her to work for him in order to take better care of the goats.
By mid-August, Thompson found a veterinarian who dewormed the goats and treated some for pneumonia. She also implemented a feeding schedule and a group chat to ensure the goats were being fed and watered daily.
Asked whether the case rose to the level of animal cruelty, Haas wrote in an email that the Agency of Agriculture serves a “consultative role to the responding humane officer” and that the agency “does not bring animal cruelty charges.” That is left to law enforcement or the humane officer, she wrote.
Sweeney, the state trooper, reported on Aug. 21 that he had received new information in emails from people involved with the farm and that he would discuss the case with Chittenden County Deputy State’s Attorney Sally Adams, according to state police records. His records included the photos and video that Thompson sent in July.
After reviewing the reports, Adams instructed Sweeney to follow up with the humane society investigator and visit the farm “to see if improvements have been made,” and if not, “the farmer should be cited into court,” according to police records.
The follow-up visit occurred on Aug. 30, according to police records, and revealed that the farm “showed significant improvements,” and that a person previously involved in the farm was no longer involved. The name has been redacted in public records.
“No charges will be filed,” the state police report concluded.
‘Nobody is taking complete ownership of it’
Haas, the state veterinarian, said the Charlotte goat case was “one of many where it kind of has highlighted the deficiencies in the process that currently exists.”
“There are statutes that define what category of human being can serve as a humane officer,” she said. “Where the variability comes in is that that's different from municipality to municipality as to which positions, either in the town or at the state level, are serving in that role.”
Haas said “endless conversations” have occurred for more than a decade about how to fix the current process of reporting issues involving animal welfare.
Wilda White, a policy and training consultant for the Department of Public Safety, said in an interview the current system is “all over the place.”
“Nobody is taking complete ownership of it,” she said. “So that's why people get tossed around.”
In a report released to the Legislature Jan. 26, White recommended that Vermont adopt a “dedicated” animal welfare program, similar to what exists in Maine.
“It's got a director, it's got humane officers across the state, it's got a vet assigned, it's got a planning and research person assigned. It’s got a home, basically,” she said.
The report recommends to the Legislature that a “Division of Animal Welfare” be constructed within the Agency of Agriculture, with its own director in charge of creating a “comprehensive program that upholds the animal welfare laws.”
The director would be advised by an “Animal Welfare Advisory Council” consisting of 14 members, each appointed by the governor. The director of the division would also be able to recruit law enforcement officers to aid in the investigation and enforcement of animal cruelty laws, according to the report.
On Dec. 22, 2022, almost four months after the initial investigation, the Department of Fish & Wildlife paid a visit to the farm. That came after the Vermont State Police announced that Fish & Wildlife would take charge of animal cruelty investigations, as part of a reorganization among state agencies.
According to public records, a game warden and a game warden trainee visited the farm, where they were met by a University of Vermont grazing specialist, Amber Reed.
According to Fish & Wildlife’s report, “the goats appeared to have feed, water and shelter.” But Reed outlined three requirements for the farm, including making sure the water in the enclosures did not freeze, that hay feeders be used and that some of the enclosures be better ventilated, the report said.
“This case will be monitored for the next three or more years by Fish & Wildlife to make sure this won’t happen again,” Reed said in an interview.
The game warden, Sgt. Dana Joyal, did not respond to multiple phone calls requesting comment.
Six months after Thompson first discovered the starving goats, she said things are different now at the farm. She said about 30 of the original 50 or so kids remain, and they’re now healthy. They’re old enough that they don’t need to be bottle-fed, and they have transitioned to grain.
Thompson said the goats need only to be fed and watered twice a day. Dunbar goes to the farm in the morning, and Ko Gyi goes at night, according to Thompson.
“They are getting tons of grain,” she said. “I mean they are huge now, compared to where they were.”
Thompson said she is much more optimistic about the situation now that Fish & Wildlife officials have committed to monitoring the farm. But she also reflected on her frustration with the sluggishness of the state’s system for responding to concerns of animal neglect.
“My goal,” she said, “is to have the animals' best interest at heart.”
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