INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — The Indiana Department of Natural Resources said Friday it is asking a prosecutor to drop charges against a couple who nursed an injured baby deer back to health and kept it in an enclosure on their property for two years.
The misdemeanor charges of illegal possession of a white-tailed deer against police officer Jeff Counceller and his wife, Jennifer, spawned a public outcry. A Facebook page and online petition sprung up in their defense.
Gov. Mike Pence asked the DNR to review the case this week, and on Friday the agency said in a statement that it would ask prosecutors to dismiss the charge, which carries a penalty of up to 60 days in jail and a $500 fine.
The Decatur County prosecutor's office said in a statement that it would review the case once it has received the department's request, but that it had not yet arrived.
"Clearly, this was the right decision. And while we are a state of laws, there is also room for grace, and particularly for people who are trying to care for an injured animal," Republican House Speaker Brian Bosma said Friday.
Jennifer Councellor said she is pleased the agency has reconsidered.
"I had hopes that it would come out this way because it was obvious that much of the world saw the compassion of what we did and there was not criminal intent," she told The Indianapolis Star. The Councellers did not return phone calls Friday from The Associated Press.
Jeff Counceller said he found the deer in 2010 curled up on a front porch with maggot-infested puncture wounds, so he took it back to his family's 17-acre farm in Connersville to try to save it. The couple named the fawn Dani and kept it in a fenced enclosure.
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. They applied for a rescue permit but were turned down.
Then, last summer, the deer vanished on the very day the DNR planned to euthanize it. The agency then asked for charges to be brought against the Councellers.
A Facebook profile supporting the couple — Drop Charges Against Connersville Police Officer — has drawn more than 38,000 likes, and an online petition calling for the charges to be dismissed has attracted more than 30,000 signatures. The page lit up with triumphant comments following Friday's announcement.
Pence said Wednesday it appeared that conservation officers had properly followed state law barring residents from keeping wild animals. But he also said he had asked the DNR for a briefing and noted that Hoosiers clearly love animals.
The Decatur County Prosecutor's Office, which handled the case because Jeff Counceller is a police officer in Fayette County and works with prosecutors there, urged state officials to review the law.
"We hope that the Department of Natural Resources and the Indiana legislature will take this opportunity to review that statute and decide if matters like these allegations should be handled as crimes or infractions in the future," the prosecutors' statement said.