A woman who lost about 200 farm animals in an upstate New York barn fire blames the disaster on a propane heater she had set up to protect newborn and pregnant sheep and goats from subzero cold.
Robin Dillenbeck, sitting with her mother at their kitchen table Thursday, cried as she described her animals as the center of her life. Friends managed to rescue 10 scorched sheep and goats from the fire Sunday in Johnstown, in the Mohawk Valley about 40 miles west of Albany.
Fulton County District Attorney Louise Sira says Dillenbeck was a “hoarder” caring for more animals than she could handle when she was charged with a misdemeanor in March 2008. The charge of providing inadequate sustenance was dismissed when Dillenbeck agreed to keep fewer animals.
The 56-year-old Dillenbeck lives on a dead-end dirt road a few miles from the barn, which she had leased from a New York City resident since her own barn collapsed 18 years ago.
The night of the fire, Dillenbeck said she stopped at the barn at 4 p.m. to do her chores and feed the animals before going to work as a restaurant dishwasher. With temperatures forecast to drop to 20 below zero that night, she set up a propane tank-mounted portable space heater in a room of the barn.
“One of the goats must have pushed the door open and knocked over the tank,” she said. “My brother and his girlfriend came up to the restaurant later and told me the barn was on fire. I went crazy when they told me. They wouldn’t let me go over there; they knew I’d run in and try to save my animals.”
In addition to dozens of sheep and goats, the fire killed a horse, two Shetland sheepdogs, several cats, two pigs, a steer and a llama, she said.
Sira said there was no criminal investigation of the fire and it appeared Dillenbeck had been complying with the terms of the earlier case.
Nancy Hart, a Johnstown animal control officer, told the Albany Times-Union that she has known Dillenbeck since she was young. She said she wouldn’t describe Dillenbeck as an animal hoarder, but as someone who loved animals and “probably had more to take care of than she could handle.”
Hart said she wasn’t aware of any complaints of animal neglect on Dillenbeck’s property since the misdemeanor charge in 2008.
“I’ve always loved animals,” Dillenbeck said. “I was never one to go out and have a good time in town. I just want to be with my animals, work with my animals. That’s what makes me happy. I wasn’t getting rich off them; I just enjoyed being with them.”
She said she works three part-time jobs — as a dishwasher, a school custodian and a milker at a neighboring dairy farm — to provide food and veterinary care for her animals.
“They’re like my family,” she said. “They were all as tame as can be. They’d run right up to me when I called.”
Visiting her 10 remaining animals at a friend’s barn, Dillenbeck ran her hand over the singed wool of a ewe and examined the swollen eyes of a billy goat whose face was scorched. A tiny black lamb nibbled her fingers and she scooped it into her arms, saying she has been bottle-feeding it since its mother died in the flames.
“I haven’t slept more than three or four hours since it happened,” Dillenbeck said. “I see their little faces in my head. I see them crying for their mothers and I can’t help them.”
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