An Indiana couple who rescued an injured deer fawn, nursed it back to health and raised it to maturity face the possibility of jail time and a fine after state officials charged them with a misdemeanor for harboring the animal. Jennifer Counceller and her husband, Jeff, face up to a $500 fine and 60 days in jail. / The Indianapolis Star
INDIANAPOLIS - The couple who find themselves in trouble with the law for rescuing a baby deer now also find themselves in the midst of a multimedia whirlwind.
A Facebook page set up four days ago to show support for Jeff and Jennifer Counceller now has more than 9,000 "likes" from people around the world. An online petition on their behalf has more than 6,000 signatures.
Early Tuesday, the Councellors appeared on ABC's Good Morning America in a piece introduced by host George Stephanopoulos as a story "guaranteed to make you mad."
"We can't believe it's gotten this big," Jeff Counceller said.
The Councellers first found the deer, which they named Dani, curled up in a corner of a porch. They 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 (DNR) will not comment on an open court case, spokesman Lt. William Browne said Monday.
DNR officials last summer sought to have the deer, which the family named Dani, euthanized. But on its execution day, the deer went missing. The Councellers say they know the deer had lots of human friends, but they say they don't know how it was set free.
"I think she had help getting out, but I don't know anything about who or how," Jeff Councellor said. "But I can tell you the deer had probably 20 to 30 friends, human friends. She was very popular."
The DNR's incident report cast some suspicion on Jennifer's 80-year-old father as the culprit, but she says there was no proof he had anything to do with it. After a flurry of questions last summer, there was nothing but silence from the DNR until the Councellers received notice of the charges earlier this month.
They 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.
"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."
Jeff Counceller said he's not out to bash the DNR, but he said he feels he and his wife are being singled out for some reason.
"They continue to let their egos distort the direction of the way this is going," he said.The DNR has had no comment on the case, which is set for a pretrial hearing next month and a court date in March.
DNR's website says possession of a deer could foster the transmission of diseases and parasites from animals to humans.
"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 Councellers are happy about one thing.
Since Dani's escape last summer they have repeatedly seen a small group of deer roaming their property and coming to drink from the pond near Dani's old enclosure. At the sight of people, three of the deer run off immediately. But one of the young does, one that looks like Dani, hesitates for a moment before joining the others.
"In my heart," Jennifer Counceller said, "I know it's her."
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