Authorities this week conducted a raid at a farm and slaughterhouse in northern Cattaraugus County, removing more than 70 farm animals described as severely neglected, starving and malnourished.
One sheep was found dead earlier this week, and three horses were found dead in late March at the East Otto farm, which had been the target of two earlier animal cruelty investigations dating to 2000.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture has been called in to investigate the slaughterhouse operation.
The farm's owner, Jay D. Williams, said Muslims from Lackawanna and Nigerian families from the Amherst area have long been buying animals from him and then using his slaughterhouse to butcher their animals.
He insisted the families use the meat themselves and do not sell it in stores because it is not stamped by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
"I don't think it was right they took my animals. If you went and looked at the animals, they're not in bad shape," the 60-year-old Williams said in a phone interview from his farm Friday night. "I have Amish friends who will testify to the animals' well-being. I was all perfectly legal and then this here happens. I have not been doing anything wrong."
The investigation is being spearheaded by the SPCA in Cattaraugus County, with assistance from the Farm Sanctuary animal protection organization, which has taken most of the animals to its Watkins Glen sanctuary to try to rehabilitate them and nurse them back to health.
So far, Williams has been charged with two misdemeanor counts of animal cruelty under the state Agriculture and Markets Law, with more charges pending. He was not arrested and agreed to surrender his animals.
Rescuers described what they said were horrific conditions in a main barn where many of the sheep and lambs were kept. They seized a total of 73 animals, 65 of which went to the Watkins Glen farm sanctuary; seven horses and a chicken are with the SPCA.
The SPCA's interest was sparked in late March after it received a report of three dead horses that the owner has since buried. Cattaraugus County sheriff's deputies responded to that complaint.
Since then, the agency visited the farm on April 16, and reported that when it asked where water was for the animals, Williams reportedly pointed to a door off of a van with rain water in it. The SPCA said he also pointed to mud puddles as an additional water source.
After that visit, the SPCA had to obtain a search warrant and coordinate rescue efforts before returning Tuesday for the raid. One sheep was found dead in the middle of living sheep, the agency said.
Defending his practices, Williams said he had animals on his property that he was getting ready for slaughtering, prior to selling them to customers who buy them and then do their own butchering in his slaughter facility. He stressed that he does not do the slaughtering himself because he is not licensed to do custom butchering, but only holds a license for the slaughterhouse itself.
"I buy them very cheaply. Many are thin and sick and I bring them to feed out," Williams said of the animals. "Then, the [customers] butcher them. I deal with the Muslims I pretty much keep the animals around for people to buy them."
For the better part of 16 years, Williams said, he has been buying sheep, goats, cows and other animals cheaply from auctions in Springville, Cherry Creek and Ischua to take back to his farm.
The 121-acre farm includes a cinderblock building on the East Flats Road farm that was described by rescuers as a grim slaughterhouse with rendering equipment and a floor drain. A starving goat was found hidden in a tack room of the main barn. That goat has since been taken to Cornell University for care.
The manure pack on the farm was described as at least five to six inches deep, with lice-infested chickens and starving animals.
Williams is no stranger to local animal rescue officials, who first began receiving complaints about him in 1992.
Kelly Chaffee, president of the SPCA, has worked with Williams for the better part of two decades, trying to get him to do right by the animals.
"We pulled up in the SPCA vehicle to have 30 to 40 chickens and roosters swarm the vehicle, looking for food," Chaffee said.
"It's very heartwrenching. The cries of the animals, alone, is enough to make you lose sleep," Chaffee said. "Every animal comes to you as if to say, 'You're going to feed me, right?' I kept whispering in their ears that we'll be coming back."
Susie Coston, the Farm Sanctuary's national shelter director, said, "It reminded me of a really bad horror movie, where you go in and find people hidden in a basement. It was so scary in that place -- starving animals left in these horrible, dank conditions, living in feces with their babies. The main thing I noticed was a lot of smell of decaying, dead animals."