An Indiana couple is facing up to 60 days in jail and $2,000 in fines for saving a deer from death. Jeff Counceller, a police officer, and his wife Jennifer spotted an injured baby deer on their neighbor’s porch. Instead of turning a blind eye to the dying fawn, the Councellers took the deer in and nursed it back to health.
They kept the deer, Little Orphan Dani, in their backyard as it recovered. Everything was fine until an Indiana Conservation Officer spotted Little Orphan Dani in the Councellers’ yard. The Councellers were charged with unlawful possession of a deer, a misdemeanor offense.
The day that Little Orphan Dani was to be euthanized by the Conservation Agency, the deer inexplicably escaped into the wild. Although Little Orphan Dani was able to get away, the Councellers may not be so lucky.
Historically, crimes have two elements: (1) actus reus (bad act), and (2) mens rea (bad intent).
Most people would agree that nursing an animal back to health is not a “bad act” in the sense of being morally blameworthy. Keeping the deer is deemed to be a “bad act” only because the legislature has said it is prohibited. Do we as a society want to punish acts that are not inherently wrong with criminal penalties?
Was there a bad intent? Is intending to save an animal bad? Most people would say it is not. Jeff Counceller is a police officer. It is highly doubtful that he intended to flout the law. It is much more likely that he simply didn’t know that his conduct was prohibited, much less a criminal act. If an officer of the law does not know that his conduct is illegal, how can others expect to know it?
If the act itself is not bad, and the Councellers did not know that their action was illegal, what could society possibly gain by having people like the Councellers serve time in prison and get a criminal record?
Should you think that this is solely a problem in Indiana, you would be very much mistaken. Sadly, this is not an isolated incident. Others have been prosecuted for their efforts to help animals in need.
In an eerily similar case, 11-year-old Skylar Capo and her mother, who live in Virginia, were threatened with criminal charges and up to one year in prison for nursing a woodpecker back to health. In the Capos’ case, it was the federal government going after the do-gooders for violating the Migratory Bird Treaty Act. Luckily for the Capos, the story gained national attention and the prosecution was dropped.
Robert Eldridge, a commercial fisherman from Massachusetts, was prosecuted for whale harassment by federal authorities under the Endangered Species Act and the Marine Mammal Protection Act, an offense punishable by up to one year in prison, for freeing a humpback whale from a fishing net.
What lesson do laws such as these teach? If you see an animal in distress, leave it to die? People inherently want to help people and animals that are in need. Sadly, overbroad laws such as these can turn good Samaritans into criminals.