GEORGETOWN — Two neighboring Scott County farms have been butting heads for at least eight years over some wandering goats, and the dispute moved to federal court after two rare goats were shot and killed when they strayed from one farm to the other.
Birchwood Conservancy, an animal preservation group that owned the goats, filed suit in U.S. District Court in Lexington this month against neighboring farm owner Jeremy Webb, Scott County Sheriff Tony Hampton and Scott Deputy Sheriff Ben Jones.
The suit says Webb shot two goats after about 30 of the animals strayed onto his property, north of Georgetown, on Nov. 8, 2011. It says Jones, who went to the farm on Muddy Ford Road, approved or encouraged Webb to shoot the animals, described in the suit as "rare hybrid goats" with a replacement value of $95,000 each. The suit seeks more than $190,000 in damages — the total replacement cost for both goats.
The two neighbors have battled in court for years, creating a series of cases in state court that appear to be pending.
Among those cases is a lawsuit filed against Webb by Birchwood Conservancy officials Lucinda Christian and Evan Blakeny. That suit, which seeks punitive damages from Webb, says a shot was fired at Christian and Blakeny on the evening of Nov. 8, 2011.
Both suits, which appear to be the most recent court proceedings involving the farm owners, say someone cut a hole in the Birchwood Conservancy's fence and "enticed" the goats onto Webb's property.
The lawsuits followed a criminal complaint that Webb swore out against Evan Blakeny in Scott District Court that is tied to the same Nov. 8, 2011, goat incident. In April, a district court jury found Blakeny guilty on charges of allowing cattle to run free, third-degree trespass onto Webb's property, and menacing Webb by throwing rocks at him. The jury fixed fines totaling $275 on the misdemeanor charges.
Webb declined comment on the lawsuits, citing advice from his attorney.
Lucinda Christian, president of the Birchwood Conservancy, declined comment on the lawsuits. However, she said her group's problems in containing animals date to a failed barn construction project in 2003. (That also has been the subject of a lawsuit in Scott County.)
According to various court filings, Birchwood Conservancy uses its farm on Muddy Ford Road in Scott County for "research in animal genetics" and shelters a number of animals to promote sustainable agriculture. Webb's farm is next door.
Information on the Birchwood Conservancy is limited, but it apparently was launched as a non-profit charitable organization in California in the early 1990s. Birchwood has had a Kentucky presence for several years, doing business here as the "World Heritage Animal Genetic Repository Institute," according to the institute's Web site.
Birchwood focuses on preserving domestic plants and animals that are in danger of extinction because they have generally been replaced by more modern breeds, according to Ernest "Gus" Cothran, a former research professor in veterinary science at the University of Kentucky who is an advisor to the conservancy. Birchwood works with groups such as the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization, he said.
"They're preserving various examples of rare and endangered breeds, such as goats, some horses from Russia, highland cattle and some things like geese," Cothran said from Texas A&M University, where he is a clinical professor. "Basically, their goal is to set up a repository for genetic material from endangered breeds of domestic species."
Preserving old breeds is crucial because they could become vitally important if changing environmental conditions threaten the modern breeds that society relies on, Cothran said. He cited the Holstein-Friesian dairy cow, which by some estimates accounts for nine-tenths of U.S. milk production.
"If global warming really has an impact ... the Holstein-Friesian might not be as productive in another environmental situation," Cothran said. Older, more biologically diverse breeds might fill the gap, but only if they're preserved, he said.
Cothran described the Birchwood Conservancy as a "not very big" organization, basically made up of Lucinda Christian and Evan Blakeny.
Bruce Simpson, a Lexington attorney who has represented Christian and Blakeny, says they are "110 percent dedicated to the care of those animals." Simpson said there were times when they would even bring animals into their trailer for protection in winter weather.
But Blakeny and Christian and Jeremy Webb and his wife apparently have had differences stemming from the animals for at least eight years, according to Scott County Sheriff's Department records.
Documents obtained under an open records request show that both sides have filed numerous complaints with the sheriff's department since early 2004, including reports of goats or other livestock straying onto adjoining property and alleged trespassing incidents.
Several times deputies noted on reports there was an "ongoing dispute between neighbors" or that "the two parties do not get along."
The two sides also have been in court at various times, including a 2004 lawsuit by Webb alleging that Christian had failed to maintain a legal fence between the properties.
Apparently, things came to a head on Nov. 8, 2011.
According to the Birchwood Conservancy's federal lawsuit, about 30 experimental goats ended up on Webb's property that evening. The suit says Webb called the sheriff's office, and Deputy Ben Jones responded.
After talking with Jones, the suit says Webb opened fire, killing two goats that "were participants in the World Heritage Animal Genetic Repository global conservation initiative."
Jones, acting in his capacity as a deputy sheriff, "either gave his approval or encouraged Webb" to shoot the animals, the lawsuit says. Scott County Sheriff Tony Hampton should be liable for alleged damaged caused by his deputy, according to the suit. No hearings have been scheduled in the federal case.
But attorney Tom Nienaber, who represents Hampton and Jones, said that while the goats were shot, the deputy had nothing to do with it.
"The allegation in the complaint that Deputy Jones encouraged or promoted that conduct is inaccurate," Nienaber said. "Obviously, we don't think there is any merit whatsoever in the complaint."
Richard Rawdon, the attorney representing the conservancy, said replacing the goats will be highly expensive.
"If you are developing a goat and it's killed, you have to start all over again," he said. "It's not that you can just fix up another batch or whatever."