INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — Jeff Counceller says a dying fawn he found on someone’s
porch three years ago surely wouldn’t have lived had he and his wife not
nursed it back to health on their eastern Indiana farm. The Connersville
police officer insists they had no clue that they could be breaking the law.
The couple’s good deed put them at odds with the state Department of Natural
Resources, and prosecutors earlier this month charged Jeff and Jennifer
Counceller with illegal possession of a white-tailed deer, a misdemeanor
that carries up to 60 days in jail and a $500 fine.
Counceller said they plan to fight the charges, even though it might be
cheaper and easier to just pay the fine. If their burgeoning legion of
online supporters is any indication, public opinion is very much on the
Counceller told The Indianapolis Star that he found the deer in 2010 curled
up on a front porch with maggot-infested puncture wounds, so he brought it
back to his family’s 17-acre farm to try to save it. The couple named the
fawn Dani and kept it in a fenced enclosure.
Jeff Counceller said he and his wife didn’t know it was illegal to keep the
deer, and that returning it to the wild when they were told to do so “would
have been a death sentence.”
A probable cause affidavit said Jennifer Counceller told a conservation
officer that she eventually realized she needed a permit to keep the deer,
but didn’t contact officials because she realized they would “put it down.”
Jeff Counceller didn’t immediately respond to a Tuesday phone message left
by The Associated Press seeking comment. Jennifer Counceller’s voicemail
wasn’t accepting new messages.
DNR spokesman Lt. Bill Browne said the agency had received a lot of phone
calls and email about the charges, but he declined to comment about the case
and instead referred the AP to the agency’s claims in the court documents.
The deer’s story went viral online this week after a sympathetic
Indianapolis man, John Waudby, set up a Facebook page to rally support for
“I heard about it early Saturday morning when I got home,” said Waudby, a
41-year-old warehouse worker. “I saw it on the news and was outraged. I was
like, you’ve got to be kidding me.”
“They’re not criminals. They were trying to do the right thing,” he added.
The Facebook page, “Drop Charges Against Connersville Police Officer,” had
more than 15,000 “likes” by mid-afternoon Tuesday and was growing by about
1,000 an hour. Waudby said he had hoped to reach perhaps 1,000 local people
to put pressure on prosecutors to drop the charges, but was receiving
responses from as far away as Argentina and Australia. He was also
circulating an online petition and by noon, the petition had topped 8,000
signatures. More than 135 people had signed up online to attend the
Councellers’ trial on March 7 in Fayette County.
“It’s like a wildfire that you just can’t stop at this point,” Waudby said,
adding that he’s only slept for about 10 hours, total, in the three days
since launching his online campaign.
The Councellers said they had intended to release the deer once it was
strong enough to survive on its own. They tried to find it a home at animal
rescue operations, petting zoos and deer farms, but no one would take it.
According to court records, Jeff Counceller texted a conservation officer
and urged DNR not to kill the deer, saying “"it’s not the deer’s fault.”
Last summer, the deer vanished on the day that the DNR planned to euthanize
it, following the denial of the couple’s request for a rescue permit.
The DNR website includes a section on wildlife rehabilitation that warns
people who find wild animals to make sure they are really abandoned and if
they are, to contact a licensed wildlife rehabilitator. The closest
rehabilitators to Connersville are in neighboring Wayne County, according to
a list on the website.
“Removing wildlife from the environment is prohibited by state regulations
without a proper handling permit,” the DNR website warns, adding that most
young animals that appear to be abandoned don’t require help. “Wildlife can
carry diseases and parasites that can be transmitted to humans, it is best
to leave them alone,” the website adds.
Kathleen Hershey, president of Utopia Wildlife, a wildlife rehabilitation
center near Hope in south-central Indiana, said even though the Councellers
meant well, it’s bad for a deer to become acclimated to humans because they
can become too trusting and easy prey for hunters.
“They have real serious social needs, and you can’t just raise a deer. ...
They have to be in with others of their kind,” she said. “It has to learn
how to live in a herd and that’s where its safety is.”
Most of the Facebook posts expressed disbelief that the couple could face
charges for what was perceived as a good deed, but some comments weren’t so
One post pointed out that the couple had exposed themselves, their children
and their pets to disease carried by deer, and that the local deer
population could be infected now that the animal is free.
Although lawyer’s fees would be more expensive than paying the fine, the
Councellers said they plan to fight the charge.
“Sometimes, it’s not always about the DNR laws,” Jennifer Counceller told
the Star. “Sometimes it’s about common sense and what’s right in God’s eyes.
And that’s what I’m going to stand for.”
Waudby said he plans to attend the Councellers’ court hearings, “and I’m
bringing thousands of people with me.”