INDIANAPOLIS -- 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 couple’s side.
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 the Councellers.
"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 sympathetic.
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."