Charges were dropped late Friday against an Indiana police officer and his wife in the “Bambigate” case, a moniker for the case of the Connersville, Ind., couple charged with illegally possessing a fawn they found and raised back to health in 2010.
Jeff Counceller, a Connersville, Ind., police officer, and his wife, Jennifer, faced a $500 fine and up to six months in jail had they been convicted of the Class C misdemeanor crime of unlawfully taking or possessing wildlife without a license or permit, according to Plil Bloom, Communications Director for the Indiana Department of Natural Resources.
The case garnered national attention earlier this year, and even reached the attention of Gov.a few weeks after he entered office. The Councellers have been portrayed as Good Samaritans and the DNR as over-reaching villains wanting to punish a good, caring couple for simply helping an injured fawn.
Thousands have been outraged by what most see as the DNR vilifying the well-intentioned couple for nursing a sick or injured fawn back to health, and they have come to the couple's defense. A Facebook page received more than 32,000 likes in a matter of a few days; an online petition netted more than 150,000 signatures; and a legal defense fund raised more than $2,600 to pay the couple’s legal fees in defending against the charges.
However, the case isn’t as clear-cut as most of the Counceller’s supporters and the public may believe.
According to court documents, the couple intentionally broke the law
According to the charges and case report filed by Indiana Conservation Officer Travis Wooley, the Councellers found an injured fawn they named “Dani” in mid-2010 and, despite being told not to, kept it for two years.
“Jeff Counceller contacted a state conservation officer and asked permission to keep the animal, at which time Counceller was advised to put the animal back. Counceller asked the conservation officer if he could obtain a permit to keep the animal and was told he would unlikely get one,” Bloom said.
Bloom added, “Now jump forward to 2012, based on a report from a citizen that the Councellers had the deer penned up, a different conservation officer -- Travis Wooley -- started a new investigation.”
According to Bloom, Wooley’s investigation established that the Councellers, despite being told in 2010 they could not keep the deer, had in fact done just that. “When Wooley went back to take possession of the deer, it had mysteriously disappeared – the gate was open,” said Bloom.
“Mr. Counceller admitted to the conservation officer he had kept the deer and was planning to release it when it became big enough,” Bloom said.
At that point, according to Bloom and court documents of Nov. 29, 2012 the case was submitted to a special prosecutor in a neighboring county due to Counceller being a police officer.
According to the special prosecutor's report obtained by this writer, “From July 2010 until June 2012, Jeff Counceller possessed a deer by keeping a deer on the property of his residence.” The report also included an offer that if Counceller agreed not to commit any crime for six months and pay a fine of $270 the case would be dismissed. Counceller never responded to the offer according to the report.
The couple’s actions could have jeopardized the public’s health and safety
Bloom said, “Mr. Counceller claims he had nowhere to take the fawn when he found it. This is simply not true,” referring to on easily accessible online list of state-licensed wildlife rehabilitators.
A review of the list, confirmed by Bloom, indicates there was a licensed rehabilitator in a neighboring county less than an hour’s drive from Councellor’s home.
That rehabilitator, John Wiggins from Greensburg who has 33 years experience said, “At the most I am only 45 minutes away from Connersville, and people over there know I’m here. I have gotten several calls and animals from Connersville residents.
“I have never known anyone who intended to release a deer they raised keep it for two years. At the most as a rehabilitator I keep them between three-six months,” Wiggins said.
“We run into this problem all the time; people becoming attached to wildlife they raise and trying to make pets out of them. It’s a big problem,” Wiggins said.
According to Wiggins, the way in which the deer was kept and possibly raised has caused the deer to associate people and possibly domestic animals with food, a process called “imprinting.”
He said, “a deer’s brain is about the size of a golf ball, therefore, deer easily associate food with people if they aren’t raised properly.”
“Any wild animal that has been improperly raised and imprinted on people has little chance of surviving in the wild. They can also become nuisance wildlife and with deer, especially males this can be dangerous to the public,” Wiggins added.
Wiggins said “from what I know about the way that deer was kept for two years, I give it at most a 30 percent chance of surviving in the wild.”
Cindy Calloway of Royal Center, Ind., who has rehabilitated wildlife for more than 25 years said, “People that attempt to raise or treat wildlife can cause the animal a lot of problems.” Calloway pointed to feeding the animal the improper food or formula, the wrong amount and even how it is given can “negatively affect the animal’s health and development.”
Both Wiggins and Calloway agree in this instance, the most significant problem and risk to both public safety and the deer is imprinting. Both say is has occured in this case.
Calloway said several years ago an adult male deer that that was raised and kept for an extended period of time by a non-rehabilitator was released in the Ttippecanoe River State Park in Winamac, Ind., and injured several people.
The charges against the couple were dropped after prosecutors received a letter from the DNR which Bloom said included the following passage: “(T)he statute in question accurately reflects the concerns of the public health and risk of bringing wild animals into captivity, and the conservation officer acted properly in bringing charges, (but) the costs associated with the prosecution did not further the interests of Indiana citizens."
Neither Jeff nor Jennifer Counceller could be reached for comment.