As the JAVMA was going to press in August, two flocks of exotic sheep suspected of being infected with transmissible spongiform encephalopathy hung in legal limbo.
After failing to reach a court-directed agreement by which the approximately 350 sheep would be voluntarily surrendered, the USDA in August asked a federal judge to uphold an emergency order issued by Agriculture Secretary Dan Glickman to euthanatize the flocks quarantined in Vermont.
The owners are appealing the court's ruling and seeking an injunction on the secretary's order.
The owners, along with the Belgian government, have also requested that the remaining 48 sheep from the original flock be returned to Belgium. During the initial hearing in July, the test used to diagnose the TSE in the sheep was called into question. There is speculation that Belgian officials may want to determine for themselves whether the sheep are, in fact, infected.
A USDA spokesperson would not disclose the agency's answer to the requests.
JAVMA News has reported the USDA's intent to acquire 376 sheep from three Vermont flocks after four sheep tested positive for TSE. Sixty-five of those sheep, mostly East Friesian milk sheep, were imported from Belgium and the Netherlands in 1996 and consigned to milk-production flocks at two Vermont farms (see JAVMA, Aug 15, 2000, page 459).
Most of the original sheep imports have progeny.
Belgium and the Netherlands reported their first cases of bovine spongiform encephalopathy in native cattle in 1997. Shortly afterward, the European Union's Scientific Steering Committee stated that it is highly probable European sheep were exposed to feed contaminated by BSE.
These factors led the USDA to conclude that the imported sheep could very well have been exposed to BSE while in Europe. At the USDA's request, Vermont quarantined the three flocks. Then on July 10, four of the second-generation offspring of the imported sheep tested positive for TSE by Western blot analysis of the brain.
The agency bought and destroyed 21 sheep from one flock, but owners of the remaining flocks have fought the USDA's eradication efforts.
On Aug 1, the US District Court for Vermont essentially ruled in favor of the USDA but stopped short of ordering that the sheep be confiscated. The court ruled instead for the agency and flock owners to reach an agreement by Aug 7, at which time the owners would agree to turn over the sheep.
During negotiations, however, the owners declared their intent to oppose Glickman's order and appeal the court ruling. The USDA responded by filing a motion that the court order the owners to comply with Glickman's mandate.
A court hearing to decide the sheep's fate had not yet been scheduled.