Connersville, Ind. — Dani the Deer is back in the wild, and the husband and wife who nursed her back to health are now out of the woods, legally speaking.
Indiana’s version of “Born Free” ended Friday when a special prosecutor dismissed the state’s charges against Jeff and Jennifer Counceller for criminal possession of a whitetail deer, ending the possibility of time behind bars. The Councellers insisted they’d only wanted to help an injured animal.
“I don’t think that any state law should punish an act of kindness when there wasn’t any criminal intent,” Jennifer Counceller told the IDS.
The dismissal ended a case that drew national attention and divided opinion on the reach of the law and the morality of helping a wild animal.
A Facebook page defending the couple picked up tens of thousands of “likes.” “Good Morning America” and The Wall Street Journal covered the story. The media attention was so intense that Gov. Mike Pence addressed the issue in one of his first press conferences.
Jeff Counceller, a Connersville police officer, found the fawn on a summer night in 2010.
He answered a call from dispatch reporting a wounded deer on the porch of a neighborhood home. No more than two months old, the deer had been bitten by another animal and was bleeding, curled in a ball.
Counceller called his wife to tell her where he was. When she heard about the injured baby deer, she and the couple’s daughter headed straight to the scene.
Jennifer Counselor, recounting that evening, said her husband had also called the Department of Natural Resources. They told him to leave the faun at the edge of a woods and “let nature take its course.” Jennifer Counceller said no one explained that keeping the deer longer than 24 hours would be a crime.
Indiana law prohibits citizens from caring for a wounded wild animal.
“Our consistent advice is to leave it alone,” DNR spokesman Phil Bloom said. “It may not be abandoned. It may not be orphaned.”
When Jennifer Counceller and the couple’s daughter arrived and crouched next to the animal, the doe began licking and nudging the daughter’s hand. Jennifer Counceller
couldn’t leave it.
Jeff Counceller left to respond to another call, so Jennifer put the fawn in a pet carrier and drove her home.
“When I took the deer that night, I had no idea that I was breaking the law,” she said.
“I’m a nurse, and my first response is to heal and ask questions later.”
The family called the fawn Dani — Little Orphan Dani. Jennifer bottle-fed her goat’s milk for six months as she slowly regained her strength. They helped her transition to eating greens. As her wounds healed, they moved her from a pen in their garage to a
50-by-30-foot enclosure they built for her in their backyard.
They tried to find a wildlife rehabilitation center for the deer, but nothing fit. They always intended to send her back to the wild, said Jennifer Counceller, they tried to distance themselves from her by visiting her pen less.
They thought they might finally be ready to release her in the summer of 2012, until the Midwest was plunged into a strangling drought.
“It became a protective state of not wanting her to be released and struggle, or be released and die,” Jennifer Counceller said.
Every day they kept her was another day breaking the law.
While they waited for the drought to break, conservation officer Travis Wooley appeared at the Councellers’ door. He asked them if they were keeping a deer, and they shared the story of how they’d saved her.
It didn’t matter. He told them what they’d done was illegal.
At first, the conservation officer told the Councellers to apply for a permit to keep the deer. Four days later, he told them the fawn had become too accustomed to humans and couldn’t be released back into the wild.
The conservation officer arranged for a lethal injection — at the Counceller’s expense — at noon on June 21, and agreed to let them bury her on their property.
Court documents show Jeff Counceller sent the following text message to Wooley the night before the fawn was to be put down:
“Do not kill the deer,” he pleaded. “I am getting an attorney because it is not the deer’s fault. Please.”
Wooley came back the morning Dani was scheduled to die, but the doe was gone and her pen gate open.
Jennifer Counceller told the conservation officer she believed her father had freed Dani during an early-morning feeding, but according to court documents he never admitted
responsibility. Jeff Counceller said the text message was only sent because he was upset.
When Dani disappeared, the Councellers were deemed “noncompliant,” and the DNR turned its case over to Fayette County prosecutors.
“Once the DNR did not get the deer, they had no expectation of being charged with the crime until they were served the papers,” said Robert Gulde, Jennifer Counceller’s attorney.
Meanwhile, he conservation officer embarked on a mission to recapture and kill the deer. He asked the Councellers to leave the door to her pen open and to shut her in if she came back.
They even called him when they saw a buck and three does at the edge of their property.
Dani didn’t return.
It took the county until Nov. 29 to find a special prosecutor and officially file charges against the Councellers. Not long after, a Facebook page called “Drop charges against Connersville police officer” was put up by an anonymous user. It would grow to over 45,000 “likes.”
“It had so much momentum,” Gulde said. “Once it got started, it was just crazy,”
Public outcry was so intense Gov. Mike Pence was forced to respond. In a press conference on Jan. 30, he defended the DNR and said he asked the organization for a full briefing on the case. That publicity didn’t hurt their case either, Gulde said.
The public was outraged that the Councellers might face jail time for helping an injured animal.
Within a week of the governor’s request, the DNR requested the charges be dropped, citing time, costs and “the absence of any immediate harm from this single incident.”
On Friday, special prosecutor Brian Clark fulfilled that request, filing documents in the Fayette County Clerk’s office.
The Councellers got what they wanted: No formal charges, and Dani back in the wild.
“We loved her dearly and wanted her where she’s at now,” Jennifer Counceller said.
Last week, Jennifer told her lawyer she’d seen a group of seven deer at the edge of the woods. As they bent to drink water from the pond, one looked up and straight at her.
It was Dani. She was sure of it.