Farm owner says he was unaware of alleged animal abuse
WESTPORT — As hundreds of battered animals were removed from his farm for treatment at a temporary shelter, Richard Medeiros said Tuesday that he had no knowledge of the alleged abuse and squalor at the property and that officials had exaggerated the scope and severity of the problems.
In what appeared to be his first public remarks since authorities discovered widespread neglect at the farm last month, Medeiros said Westport police and other officials had overstated the number of animals that lived on the farm and that on recent visits they appeared to be healthy.
“Where I could see, they all looked fine,” said Medeiros, who acknowledged that it is difficult for him to survey the 71-acre farm fully. Medeiros, 82, does not live at the farm, which is divided into 21 parcels that are rented out to tenants.
Officials have been investigating allegations of abuse at the farm for about two weeks. On Tuesday, a team led by the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals began loading the first of more than 1,000 animals into trailers.
The operation — the largest of its kind to ever happen in the Northeast — will take three to four days and could cost millions of dollars, said Tim Rickey, ASPCA’s vice president of field investigations and response.
“This is a huge operation,” Rickey said. “Just the logistics of an operation like this are almost overwhelming.”
The ASPCA has described conditions at the farm as the worst case of animal cruelty they had encountered in the Northeast.
This is the second time authorities have investigated the tenant farm. In 2010, officials charged Medeiros and several of his tenants with animal cruelty, although the charges against Medeiros were later dismissed.
Since the investigation began, Westport officials have blamed one another for failing to oversee conditions at the troubled property. Police say the town’s Board of Health and its animal inspectors, who are responsible for conducting yearly inspections, should have discovered the abuse.
But James Walsh, senior health agent at the Board of Health, has disputed that claim, saying police were “painting with too broad a brush.”
On Tuesday, Medeiros said inspectors, one of whom he identified as Walsh, had been at the farm as recently as June.
“I asked them if there was any problem and they said ‘No, everything looked good,’ ” Medeiros said.
Walsh could not be reached for comment. Board of Health employees said he is on vacation.
In July, loose dogs killed more than a dozen goats on the property, an incident that alerted authorities to the deteriorating conditions. Medeiros said that was the last time he was allowed on his land.
Medeiros could not recall how long he had owned the land, which he said once belonged to his father. Medeiros said he’d never farmed there, always renting it to a rotating cast of tenant farmers.
“I’m very upset — I trusted them people,” Medeiros said. “They don’t raise animals to neglect them.”
But Rickey, who travels the country to respond to cases of animal abuse and neglect, said no self-respecting farmer would keep animals in those conditions.
“I hope this brings some awareness to the farming community, to recognize these situations and not accept them,” he said. “This is not responsible farming by any measure.”
When Westport police officers first came to the property, they said they found animals tangled in barbed wire, surrounded by decaying carcasses, and walking on broken glass.
Conditions were so bad that ASPCA response teams determined the animals needed to be moved, Rickey said. They decided to build a temporary shelter a few miles from the farm to keep the animals as local and state veterinarians nurse them back to health.
The animals, which range from cattle and goats to peacocks and doves, will be removed from the farm throughout the week. Once they are off the property, Westport police can complete their investigation, said Tony Cestodio, Westport police detective sergeant.
The attorney general’s office is also involved, and Cestodio said any criminal charges would not be filed for some time.
Investigators are being meticulous, he said, because they want to make sure everyone who was responsible is held accountable.
“We’re doing our due diligence here to make sure we dot our I’s and cross our T’s,” he said.