By Mandy Coriston
On Monday, March 9, Stephanie McPherson, founder of Found in Thyme Farm Sanctuary, was busy making plans and working with her veterinarian to do a herd assessment of the nearly five dozen animals housed at Sugar Sweet Farm in Andover. Dennis Sugar, who is currently facing cruelty charges stemming from the discovery of dead and distressed animals on his other rental properties in Hampton and Lafayette, had verbally agreed the previous week to let McPherson’s non-profit, founded in Wantage in 2017, to take over the lease on the property and undertake care of the numerous pigs, goats, alpacas, and other livestock being housed on the Rt. 206 farm.
The animals, many of them pregnant, were being assessed by Dr. Steve Brasch, and most of the mixed herd presented with complaints stemming from poor diet and lack of preventative care, such as bloat, malnourishment, and varying skin ailments. McPherson said she’d be working with the doctor and his veterinary staff to develop treatment plans and begin the daunting task of bringing the livestock back to health.
Brasch had visited the property three days straight to undertake the evaluation, and of the Found in Thyme takeover, he simply said, “It’s a good change.”
“We’re going to start by sectioning off the species and getting them on proper diets,” McPherson said after Brasch took his leave. “And we’ll need volunteers to help us get them all wormed. And there’s a lot of cleanup...we’ll really need anyone with a talent or time to spare.”
At that time, McPherson’s plans included putting out a call for action to bring in volunteers and donations, and she was even beginning to formulate sponsorship and adoption possibilities for the future.
By the evening of Tuesday, March 10, all that had changed, when Sugar rescinded his agreement with Found in Thyme after an anonymous call reporting the discovery of animal remains brought the Andover Township Police Department, the Sussex County Prosecutor’s Office, and the NJ Department of Agriculture to the farm.
“Mr. Sugar was cooperative with us,” said ATPD Chief Eric Danielson. “Lt. Kithcart and our other Humane Law Enforcement officer responded to the call. Ultimately, the bones were determined to be from a dead deer. Lt. Kithcart did see other animals that were described as being distress, but it was understood that they had been assessed and were now under the care of Dr. Brasch.”
While Sugar was cooperative with police and investigators, he is now refusing to cooperate with Found in Thyme, a move which has McPherson and others from the sanctuary understandably concerned. Sugar revoked the agreement in a text message to McPherson that evening, telling them that he was keeping the farm, and not to return to the property. McPherson believes that Sugar blamed her volunteers for the call to investigators; she was not present at the property that day.
“Since we received that message, we’ve had no further contact with Mr. Sugar,” McPherson said. “We’ve been advised to wait until after his trial and see what happens before we take any more action. In the meantime, the animals are still under his care.”
It’s Found in Thyme’s hope that when the court case is concluded the Department of Agriculture will see fit to grant them custody of the animals, after the regular state-mandated livestock quarantine period for cases such as this one. For now, the non-profit’s members can only pray that no other lives are lost at the farm.
“We’re now unaware of the prognosis on the (critically ill) animals,” McPherson said. “It’s exhausting to wonder what has become of them, or how many have perished this past week.”
There were no additional charges filed against Sugar in the Mar 10 incident, nor did any charges stem from an additional incident on Wednesday, in which Sugar called the police on two local livestock farmers who stopped by the property, resulting in a verbal altercation. Chief Danielson said his department also dismissed an unsubstantiated complaint about a deceased alpaca.
Sugar was indicted on two counts of third-degree animal cruelty and two counts of fourth-degree animal cruelty in February, as well as being charged with two disorderly counts of animal cruelty. He is slated to be arraigned on Monday, Mar 16, although the court calendar may change due to concerns about COVID-19 and ongoing cancellations throughout the county. The Andover farm, which Sugar touts as a petting zoo, opened in Oct 2019, after the Aug 2019 closure of Sugar’s Lafayette operation and Sugar’s subsequent arrest.
Found in Thyme isn’t ready to give up just yet, having already put time, money, and emotional energy into the animals there.
McPherson relayed that message in an email statement on Saturday night, Mar 14, saying, “We continue to hold hope that we will be allowed to uphold our mission as a sanctuary to care for those animals, to show them the kindness, love, and compassion they deserve. We remain strong in the truth and we will continue to fight until the animals are safe.”