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83 Sheep Gorge Themselves to Death; Their Owner May Be Herded Into Court : Animals: Rancher faces a misdemeanor charge after an employee allegedly dumped the carcasses into a ditch.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The trouble began because the grass really was greener on the other side of the fence. The luscious-looking alfalfa tempted 83 sheep to eat themselves into terminal indigestion--their stomachs exploded.

And that left a hapless shepherd struggling to dispose of the carcasses and an Antelope Valley rancher facing criminal charges.

The source of the problem was green alfalfa, for which sheep have a sometimes fatal hunger. Some of rancher Michel Ansolabehere’s nearly 2,000 sheep pushed down a wire fence west of Lancaster earlier this month and went berserk in an alfalfa field.

“They just go wild,” said the rancher’s wife, Marie. “They don’t know when to stop.”

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Technically, the 83 animals died from a malady called bloat--a gas buildup from the digesting alfalfa that causes their stomachs to “literally explode,” said Dr. Patrick Ryan, a veterinarian with the county Health Department.

The district attorney’s office Wednesday filed a misdemeanor charge against Ansolabehere because one of his shepherds, panicked at the loss, allegedly piled the dead sheep into a trailer and dumped their bloated carcasses in a roadside ditch.

Ansolabehere, 54, one of a dwindling number of Basque sheep ranchers in the region, says he was out of town and did not know that his herder, Arturo Henriquez, had dumped the carcasses. Henriquez was not charged. But the Los Angeles County Department of Animal Care and Control says that Ansolabehere, as the owner, is responsible.

County animal control officers found the dead sheep March 6 after getting a complaint from a nearby property owner. The sheep had been heaped into a pile near 125th Street West and Avenue B-8, about two miles from where they had been grazing, said animal control Sgt. Rick Pokorny. They bore green ear tags, which other sheep ranchers in the area told animal control investigators indicated they belonged to Ansolabehere.

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Because of the number of sheep dumped and as a warning to other herders, the animal control department sought charges under a law that makes it illegal to dump carcasses within 100 feet of a road.

The decaying carcasses remained on the ground for at least five days. County officials decided initially not to move them, fearing they had died of anthrax, an extremely contagious and fatal livestock disease.

But when tests on two carcasses by county veterinarians established that the animals had eaten themselves to death, Ansolabehere, at the county’s direction, picked up the carcasses and buried them March 11 in a nearby area of Kern County.

Pokorny and Deputy Dist. Atty. Joseph Payne, who filed the case in Antelope Municipal Court in Lancaster, said they are seeking only a fine, not trying to put Ansolabehere in jail. Pokorny said he believes that Ansolabehere knew about the dumping, though the rancher denies it. The rancher and his wife argue that he should not have been charged because they fully cooperated with the county.

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“It was an accident,” Ansolabehere said.


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