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Game wardens killed a deer — in front of the family that kept it as a pet

Faline, wearing one of her collars, inside the Mcgaughey residence in Ulysses, Kan. (Courtesy of Taryn Mcgaughey)

Faline entered the Mcgaughey residence on the morning of Dec. 19, ate three cookies and then left to wander around outside. By that afternoon, she had been fatally, and purposely, shot by local authorities while her caretakers watched.

Faline was a mule deer. But was she a pet, a wild animal — or something in between?

That question is at the heart of a dispute between the Mcgaughey family and wildlife officials in Kansas, where they live. To the Mcgaugheys, Faline was tame but free, and she did not deserve to die. To wildlife authorities, the deer was a socialized wild animal that could have harmed people and spread disease to other animals.

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Wildlife officials in Kansas shot "Faline," a mule deer, on the basis that the deer was a socialized wild animal that could have harmed people and spread disease to other animals. The Mcgaughey family considered the deer a pet and filmed the encounter. (Video: Courtesy of Taryn Mcgaughey)

“Euthanizing wildlife is never a pleasant situation, and it’s especially difficult when there are people present who are emotionally attached,” Mark Rankin, law enforcement assistant director for the Kansas Department of Wildlife, Parks and Tourism, told a state wildlife commission at a public meeting in the city of Emporia on Thursday. But, he added, the officers had acted appropriately and in the interest of public safety. “The deer was unlawfully possessed, and there is no permit available to hold a wild-caught deer as a pet in the state of Kansas.”

What is clear about Faline is that she was an unusual doe. Taryn Mcgaughey, 34, said in an interview that the deer had followed her mother, Kim Mcgaughey, to the family’s six-acre farm outside the town of Ulysses around 22 months ago, when the animal was less than a year old. The two, Taryn Mcgaughey said, had an “instant connection.” Soon the deer had been dubbed Faline, after Bambi’s companion, and she made fast friends with the dogs, horses and goats on the property. The doe came and went as she pleased, sometimes roaming several miles, said Mcgaughey, who added that her mother had previously been told by a local game warden that this relationship was fine so long as the deer was not confined.

Kim Mcgaughey fed Faline and gave her water. She put colorful knitted collars on the deer so that hunters would know not to shoot her. Taryn Mcgaughey, who said she believes Faline “thought she was a dog,” has photos and videos of the deer inside the home, standing on furniture and playing with her 8-year-old son.

“She was house-trained. She would come into the house behind me, sleep on the floor while I watched TV,” Kim Mcgaughey told the commission Thursday, describing how the deer would knock on the door with her head or bleat when she wanted inside. “I would answer her with a bleat back, because it sounded like she was hollering, ‘Mom.’ ”

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Everyone in the area knew Faline, so when she went missing in December, Kim Mcgaughey posted a Facebook message asking people to keep their eyes peeled. That, the Mcgaugheys think, led someone to tip off wildlife authorities. On the afternoon of Dec. 19, two game wardens arrived at the workplace of Kim Mcgaughey, an emergency medical technician, and issued her a ticket for confinement of wildlife. She told the wildlife commission that she immediately called three Kansas zoos to ask if they’d take the deer, and that one told her to call back when they reopened in the morning.

She wouldn’t get a chance to do that. The wardens had gone to her house, and a third one also arrived, said Taryn Mcgaughey, who was visiting from Las Vegas and filmed what happened next. In one video, she asks a warden who pets Faline’s head: “So you’re going to shoot her in the head?” He responds: “Yeah, I am . . . it’s the most humane way to shut her down, to solve this problem.”

In another video, the wardens can be seen walking around the Mcgaugheys’ property after the deer, who takes quick steps but does not run from them. Taryn Mcgaughey can be heard saying, “Run, Faline, Jesus.” Soon, when the deer and the wardens are far from sight, a gunshot rings out and Mcgaughey is heard breaking down into sobs. Four additional shots were fired after that, she said.

Most wildlife officials caution people against feeding or trying to rescue wild animals. Doing so can make them unafraid of humans, which can be dangerous for both people and animals. Rankin, the Kansas official, told the wildlife commission that two people in the state had previously been killed by deer they had kept as pets, and that the prevalence of chronic wasting disease in the area where the Mcgaugheys live precluded Faline’s relocation to another area, because she might spread the illness to other deer.

But local wildlife organizations were divided on the incident involving Faline, the Wichita Eagle reported. Ron Klataske, executive director of Audubon of Kansas, told the paper that he thought the risk from a deer such as Faline was low, and that experiences like the Mcgaugheys’ can get people interested in wildlife conservation.

“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,” Klataske told the paper. “I think things have gone too far.”

The Mcgaughey family says Faline should have been relocated to a sanctuary or euthanized by injection. Rankin told the wildlife commission that his department is reviewing the situation “to see what we can learn and make sure these types of situations are handled differently in the future.”

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