By Winston Ross
Special to Newsweek
Updated: 8:38 p.m. ET Sept. 19, 2007
Sept. 19, 2007 - Had he been a hunter, and had the mottled white doe that tumbled down a hill into his rural Oregon driveway six years ago been an adult, Jim Filipetti could have ponied up $19, applied for a deer tag and gunned the animal down. He could have butchered the deer the state now knows as "Snowball," mounted her head on the wall and moved on with his life.
But Filipetti chose to raise the injured fawn as a pet, spending thousands of dollars on veterinarian bills to treat her deformed hooves, installing strips of carpet throughout his house so she wouldn't slip on the hardwood floors, and feeding her a steady diet of sweetpeas, tomatoes and green beans—"the best that Safeway had to offer," he says. After 12 months, the house painter moved her to a pen outside his home in Molalla, Ore., but she was still a member of the family. "It was like having a dog around the house," Filipetti says.
Filipetti uses the past tense because his beloved Snowball has been seized by the state, which was considering euthanizing her. The story has outraged local residents and animal-rights advocates.
What’s telling is that the neighbors didn't complain. To the contrary, they took to Snowball, stopping by to feed the tame creature on a regular basis. "Everybody's got a set of animals somewhere," says Geordie Duckler, an attorney with the Animal Law Practice, a Portland specialty law firm that handles livestock disputes, biting incidents and claims against veterinarians. "It's rural Oregon."
One neighbor even brought for a visit his own rescued buck: Mr. Magoo, so named because he was blind. Filipetti agreed to let Mr. Magoo live with Snowball, until he died of what Filipetti suspects was a heart attack. Bad eyesight didn't stop a love connection between Mr. Magoo and Snowball, and little Bucky was conceived.
The family was happy enough until Filipetti had a flap with an estranged relative who called in an "anonymous" tip to state authorities that Filipetti was raising deer without any kind of permit, which is illegal under state law. In April, Oregon State Police troopers showed up, took samples of Bucky’s and Snowball's blood to determine the species, retreated for a few months to figure out how to proceed and then returned last week. The deer might be permitted to stay with Filipetti if he'd unlock his gate, state officials said, so they could be free to roam. But Filipetti refused that option, worried that the tame deer would be easy bait for vicious neighborhood dogs.
Unable to reach a compromise, the officers seized the deer and carted them off in a trailer. Filipetti called Duckler, the media was alerted and then everybody started calling the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife. "Their big mistake—and I don't know why they did this—was to say they were going to euthanize both of them," Duckler says. "That obviously was not going to play too well."
Six hundred and fifty irate citizens flooded the agency's phone lines over the next several days, demanding clemency for Snowball and her offspring. Feeling the heat, Fish and Wildlife quickly backed down, calling a press conference the day after the pet deer's mugs hit the talk shows, the television circuit and the blogosphere with as much contemplative urgency as Britney Spears's putrid performance at the MTV Video Music Awards. Neither Snowball nor Bucky would be euthanized, promised Fish and Wildlife director Roy Elicker.
The phone calls didn't stop, however. A day after that, Elicker went back to the public to announce he was negotiating with Filipetti's attorney for the possible return of at least his beloved doe, if not her kin. The vast majority of the phone calls Oregon officials took were from all over the political spectrum: bleeding-heart Bambi lovers and government-out-of-my-business types alike, united in their call for the return of Filipetti's deer.
"I can legally blow the head off a deer during hunting season," wrote Hillsboro's Greg Ebert, in a letter to The Oregonian newspaper in Portland. "But God help me if I commit a humane act on its behalf."
At the outcry, state officials froze like, well, a doe in headlights. But they still insist Filipetti's kindness was misplaced. Approaching wild animals is a bad idea because the well-intentioned are likely to get hurt, says Rick Hargrave, a spokesman for Fish and Wildlife. "If they say 'Oh, gosh, the doe has gotten too big, we need to release it,' the doe will go to extremes to get fed. It'll break down fences and break into a house," Hargrave says. "A buck will grow antlers and attack." There's also a risk of catching diseases from wild animals, Hargrave adds.
This isn't the first time a kind-hearted, misguided Oregonian has tried to heed the call of the wild. Last year, an 11-year-old girl in the coastal city of Waldport suffered a bruised skull and jaw after the deer her family had adopted after it was hit by a car decided to turn on the child, pinning her against a fence. And in 2005, state officials discovered a black bear in the home of a Roseburg man. The bear had been living there for years, it turns out, eating people food, even sleeping in a bed made for humans. A dozen times in the past year and a half, Hargrave says, state officials have had to remove wild animals from people's homes.
There are permits available to rehabilitate or otherwise care for wildlife, and Filipetti is seeking one, but the state has only agreed to issue 16 such licenses, and they're all spoken for, Hargrave explains. Still, because this was an "exceptional case" (read: exceptional public pressure) it looks as if Filipetti will be reunited, at least with Snowball, since she's incapable of surviving on her own. Bucky's fate is less certain—officials are considering the possibility of releasing him into the wild—but it's unlikely he'll spend any more comfy nights at the Filipetti home.
© 2007 Newsweek, Inc.