A western Kansas family is angry that game wardens killed a deer that had been their pet for 22 months and “was like one of the family.” Kim Mcgaughey said the deer would butt its head on the door to be let inside the house, go on walks with the family, snuggle with people and play with her grandson and dogs.
“She was a very much a big pet. There was no reason for her to be killed,” said Mcgaughey, of rural Ulysses.
“Her being domesticated was her own doing,” Mcgaughey said. “She chose to stay. I never kept her from going away and being with other deer.”
It is illegal to keep a wild animal as a pet in Kansas. State wildlife officials say something had to be done about the 2-year-old mule deer.
At least two people have been killed in Kansas by pet deer, according to the Kansas Department of Wildlife, Parks and Tourism. The department said it was trying to protect people from being physically injured by the deer, and eliminate the possibility of disease being passed to humans, livestock and other deer.
“In these cases our officers have to decide what options there are. That might be to relocate the animal, release it back into the wild or take it to some kind of rehab facility,” said Mark Rankin, law enforcement assistant director for the wildlife department. “Unfortunately once they’ve become imprinted on people, (euthanasia) is almost always the final outcome. Our officers on the scene felt (shooting the deer) was about their only option.”
Mcgaughey plans to speak at a Kansas Wildlife, Parks and Commission meeting Thursday in Emporia.
Robin Jennison, the Wildlife and Parks secretary, said he’s confident the game wardens acted within their authority, but would like the agency to reexamine its policy on euthanizing wildlife.
“All of our people have a real heart for wildlife. I can’t imagine any of our employees enjoying something like this,” Jennison said. “These things are never easy, but I think we really need to come up with policy that better handles these kinds of things.”
The shooting has drawn debate within the state’s wildlife community. Some say it’s important that wildlife not be kept as pets. Others say it can be beneficial to the animal and, more importantly, to humans interested in wildlife.
Jim Mason, director of the Great Plains Nature Center in Wichita, said such laws are often made to protect wildlife from people who don’t know how to care for an animal. All too often, he said, young animals have been taken by well-meaning people not knowing they were still being cared for by the natural mothers.
He said it’s possible an animal as large as a deer could hurt a human. In some cases, pet buck deer, charged by hormones during the annual breeding season, have gored people. Even females, Mason said, could eventually be dangerous.
“It would probably be like being pounded with a claw hammer,” he said of a doe slashing someone with its hooves. “People actually get killed by deer that were their little buddy only a week before.”
Ron Klataske, Audubon of Kansas director, said the risks are minimal. Giving the public a close-up look at a deer, coyote, squirrel or raccoon can spark interest in conservation. Many of history’s greatest conservationists, including Theodore Roosevelt, had wild animals as pets. Klataske said he had pet vultures, coyotes and other animals when he was growing up on a Kansas farm in the 1950s. He thinks he’s a better naturalist because of the experience.
An ‘instant connection’
Mcgaughey said she’s always had “a way” with animals. As a child she had a pet mouse she could walk on a leash, and her horses, dogs and cats were especially well trained, she said. A few times she’d mentioned to neighbors in Grant County she’d always wanted a pet deer. Her wish came true in March 2014 when she walked over to the house of some neighbors who’d been keeping a mule deer they’d found as a fawn the year before.
“It was an instant connection and she just followed me home, about four miles,” said Mcgaughey. “She’d bonded some with the other people but not like she did with me.”
Within a few weeks the mule deer, which they named Faline, after Bambi’s friend and future mate in the cartoon movie, “considered herself part of the family,” Mcgaughey said. The deer continually followed Mcgaughey in and out of their home 12 1/2 miles from town, and played with all members of the family and their pets.
Taryn Mcgaughey, Kim Mcgaughey’s daughter, has photos of her 8-year-old son playing with the deer, as well as the animal standing on the couch looking out the window or being hugged by family members. They say the deer never made a mess in their house, and would butt its head against a door, or bleat loudly, when it wanted to be let in.
“She was just like a dog. She’d put her face up to you to be petted,” said Taryn Mcgaughey. “I have pictures of us laying together out in the yard.” She also said the deer would follow family members when they went for walks, just like one of the family’s dogs.
The Mcgaugheys admit they fed the deer, and placed a collar on her neck. The collar, they said, was not to restrain the animal but to let deer hunters know she was a pet. When the deer came home with a broken leg, the family splinted it with a plastic pipe. It healed, but the animal carried a limp.
Kim Mcgaughey said she called a game warden in Lakin in early 2014 and asked what she could legally do.
“He told me as long as the deer was not confined, and wasn’t kept in any kind of enclosure, I was fine. Legal,” she said, adding that she doesn’t remember the game warden’s name.
She said the deer was never confined, and that it regularly showed up at a neighbor’s place 2 1/2 miles away. The deer also had dozens of chances to move off with a number of wild deer that inhabit that area.
In early December Kim Mcgaughey became worried when the deer didn’t come to her home for several days and she asked in a Facebook post on Dec. 9 if anyone had seen the animal. The deer eventually came home, but Rankin, with the wildlife department, said the post led to a complaint being made to his department.
Rankin said game wardens found Kim Mcgaughey at her workplace in Ulysses on the afternoon of Dec. 19 and issued her a ticket for “unlawful possession of wildlife without a permit.” Three game wardens soon met at her house and determined it wouldn’t be safe to capture the deer. They couldn’t find a veterinarian to tranquilize the animal.
Rankin said there was also concern that the deer could be carrying chronic wasting disease, a fatal deer disease spreading through Kansas, so their options on moving the deer were limited. Live deer cannot be tested for the disease.
Rather than taking a chance the deer might not be there if the game wardens left and came back later, Rankin said game warden Tanner Dixson shot the animal near some trees on the Mcgaugheys’ property, at the edge of the driveway.
Taryn Mcgaughey shot video of the three game wardens following the deer around the yard, the driveway and eventually herding it toward where Dixson was waiting.
Dixson said he could not comment and referred inquiries to Rankin.
Kim Mcgaughey questions the rush, saying the deer was dead within 45 minutes of the game wardens approaching her at work. During that time, she said, she contacted three zoos to see if they would take the animal. She said one, the zoo in Hutchinson, was interested but the person she needed to talk to was gone for the day.
“After having her 22 months, they couldn’t even give us 12 hours to try to take her to a sanctuary,” said Taryn Mcgaughey. “They said they were worried about our safety, but cats and dogs carry more diseases than any deer ever would.”
Rankin said nobody within the wildlife agency feels good when a wild animal that’s been made into a pet has to be destroyed, but that the agency is following the law and providing as much protection as possible for wildlife and humans.
Klataske, however, said it’s time to change the law and use some common sense.
“You can get a permit to kill a deer, or you can kill as many crows or prairie dogs as you want in a day, but you can’t have one in captivity or have it as a pet,” he said. “I think things have gone too far.”