Indiana couple could face jail time for rescuing injured deer
BY ROBERT KING Gannett News Service January 29, 2013 12:44AM
INDIANAPOLIS — When Jeff Counceller, a police officer in Connersville, Ind., first encountered the baby deer, she was curled up in the corner of a front porch.
It was clear the fawn was injured. He could see the wounds on her backside.
With other police calls to answer and nothing he could do for the deer, Counceller called the best person he could think of to help — his wife Jennifer, a registered nurse and wound caretaker for the couple’s dogs and horses.
If left to its own, Jennifer was convinced the animal would die.
So the Councellers took in the deer, which they named Dani, cleaned and dressed its wounds and nursed it back to health — all with the intention of turning it out into the wild once it was big enough and strong enough to have a chance on its own.
Trouble is, what the Councellers did is against the law. And more than two years after rescuing the deer, and more than six months after conservation officers began an investigation, the Indiana Department of Natural Resources wants them prosecuted.
The charge — illegal possession of a white-tailed deer — is a just a misdemeanor, but punished to the fullest it could cost the Councellers up to 60 days in jail and a $500 fine.
The Department of Natural Resources will not comment on an open court case, spokesman Lt. William Browne said Monday.
But the case has caught the attention of roughly 6,000 people who have “liked” a Facebook page set up on the Councellers’ behalf. The page calls for the charges to be dropped against a couple they see as being guilty of nothing more than kindness to an animal.
There’s also a petition drive and even a legal defense fund that’s raised more than $500.
“People are outraged at the DNR and that the government has nothing better to do than harass these people,” said John Waudby, an Indianapolis man who created the Facebook page after hearing about the story.
“Anybody in their right mind would have done the same thing.”
The agency’s website has general guidelines for the public when it encounters “abandoned” wildlife. For starters, animals that are alone might not be abandoned. Handling them can leave them with a human scent their mothers will want no part of. And wild animals can carry diseases and parasites that can transmit to humans.
It’s not entirely clear when or how the natural resources department became aware of Dani, but there is a reference in the report about a conversation that took place in June between a conservation officer and someone else about a penned deer on the Counceller’s 17-acre farm.
In July, the agency issued an eight-page report and asked for a special prosecutor from another county to handle the case. It is unclear why the charges are being sought now — six months later. Connersville is about 61 miles east of Indianapolis.
“It has just gotten out of hand,” said Jeff Counceller, who is a member of the SWAT team in Connersville, president of the local Fraternal Order of Police and someone who once brought in a murderer who killed three people.
“We never wanted it to come to this point,” said Jennifer Counceller, who is a nurse at a Connersville hospital and a part-time nurse at the county jail. “But we are willing to stand up for Dani and what our efforts were.”
When the Councellers brought the deer home in 2010, they fed it goat’s milk, first from a syringe, then from a bottle. When she started to walk, Jeff built her an enclosure that grew from closet sized to eventually 1,500 square feet of habitat on the edge of a pond on their property.
The Counceller’s goal was to gradually wean the deer from human contact so they could turn it out on its own with a chance to survive.
Along the way, the Councellers tried to find Dani a new home — animal rescue operations, petting zoos, deer farms. But there were no takers.
They say they weren’t aware it was illegal to keep the deer.
When the agency began its investigation, the Councellers say the conservation officer suggested they obtain a rescue permit. But that was denied. Soon, the agency said the deer must be euthanized — that it was a safety threat to humans.
But on the day the deer was to be euthanized, it turned up missing, its enclosure left open. The Councellers say they didn’t arrange the escape or know how the deer was freed but acknowledge that they didn’t probe too deeply to find out. An incident report cast some suspicion on Jennifer’s 80-year-old father as the culprit, but she says there was no proof he did anything.
The Councellors plan to fight the case, even though jail is unlikely and the lawyer costs — which could reach $5,000 — are significantly higher than a likely fine.
It’s a matter of principle, they say. They don’t want to plead guilty for trying to help an animal, and when they had no criminal intent.
“Sometimes, it’s not always about the DNR laws,” Jennifer Counceller said. “Sometimes it’s about common sense and what’s right in God’s eyes. And that’s what I’m going to stand for.”