ST. MARIES – Three shots is what it took to kill a “once in a lifetime miracle,” said Mia Suchoski.
“This was an orphan deer that the whole community helped raise,” said Suchoski, a St. Maries resident.
That deer, which neighbors named “Baby,” was shot and killed by an Idaho Fish and Game officer on Sunday, Oct. 8, after the agency received several complaints about the animal. The deer had become a beloved member of a St. Maries neighborhood during the past year, Suchoski said. The deer’s death has left bitter feelings between neighbors who loved the deer and those who considered it dangerous or a nuisance.
Idaho Fish and Game officials call the shooting a painful reminder why humans shouldn’t feed or take care of wild animals.
“Basically a loss of fear of humans by animals that large is something we don’t take lightly,” said Chip Corsi, Fish and Game’s regional manager in Coeur d’Alene.
“It’s absolutely illegal to take in a wild animal and feed them,” he added.
The deer arrived in the neighborhood near the St. Maries River about a year ago. Children found the whitetail fawn alone in the woods, apparently orphaned. A big storm was rolling in, Suchoski said, so the family brought the fawn into their home and started to care for it and bottle feed it.
Suchoski said she called the Idaho Fish and Game department and was advised that it was illegal to bring a deer into her home, and was told to “leave her to the elements.”
Suchoski refused. Over the course of the year the deer became accustomed to people, playing with Suchoski’s dog and visiting neighbors.
“We know we’re not supposed to keep wild animals, but what do you do when something like that gets in your heart,” said Barbara Smeltzer, one of Suchoski’s neighbors.
“She brought the whole community together, everyone loved this deer,” Suchoski added.
For others, the deer was not a welcome addition to the neighborhood. According to Sharlyn Johnston, the deer harassed children, the elderly and injured a neighborhood dog. On Saturday, Johnston wrote on Facebook that, “the deer has been an ongoing problem for at least six months, around the time it turned a year old.”
Johnston said in the Facebook post that she was attacked by the deer one day while walking with her three-year-old grandson. Since the deer was shot, she wrote, those who filed the complaints have been harassed by angry neighbors.
Fish and Game received at least three complaints. Those complaints prompted the agency last week to send an officer to the neighborhood to euthanize the deer, Corsi said.
That’s standard procedure for such cases, he said.
So, on Sunday Oct. 8, around 7:30 a.m., a Fish and Game officer arrived in St. Maries and tried to shoot the deer.
“We heard a thump, and I thought it was bird hitting the window, because it’s happened before,” said Smeltzer.
When she walked to the window and looked out she saw the deer flailing around in the grass. At first, Smetlzer thought she was playing.
Then she saw the blood.
“I just screamed,” said Smeltzer. “I was like a mad woman.”
More than a week later, she still breaks into tears when telling the story.
The officer used a pistol to shoot the deer, only grazing it, Smeltzer said.
The deer then ran down the hill away from the house. Neighbors gathered. The officer followed the deer down to the river and shot her again. But again the officer didn’t cleanly kill the deer, instead the bullet struck her nose.
The third shot killed the deer.
“My God she suffered,” Smetlzer said. “She suffered so badly.”
Although Mike Keckler, the spokesman for the Idaho Fish and Game Department, doesn’t know the details of this case, he said euthanizing an animal doesn’t always go smoothly.
“Clean kills don’t always occur,” Keckler said. “Sometimes it takes more than one round to end an animal’s life. Anybody that has experienced that sort of thing feels bad about it no matter what the circumstance.”
The neighbors don’t think the deer was a threat to anyone and wonder why Fish and Game didn’t relocate the beloved beast.
Keckler said that wild animals are always capable of hurting people, whether intentional or not.
“Animals that lose that fear of humans can become aggressive,” Keckler said. “Especially in instances (where) they’ve been fed.”
Wild animals, deer included, that are habituated to humans can be dangerous, he said. For instance, in 2011 a mule deer attacked a woman walking near Franklin, Idaho badly injuring her.
As for relocating the animal, Corsi said it’s an expensive and time consuming job, and one that wouldn’t fix the problem. The deer, unaccustomed to living wild, would have likely starved.
Or, the deer would have gravitated toward other neighborhoods and created a similar problem. Corsi said the conservation officer made “absolutely the right decision.”
Some neighbors don’t agree. Although they fed and cared for the deer, Suchoski said the whitetail would interact with the local herd. And, the deer had survived for a year living outside, despite numerous coyotes in the area.
“She was very agile she was very fit,” she said. “She was more fed treats. Her natural diet came from this area.”
Suchoski and others question Fish and Game’s response, and believe that the officer made the wrong decisions.
“It’s a shame on how Fish and Game handled it,” Suchoski said.
Smeltzer said she can’t believe the officer didn’t talk to the neighbors before engaging the deer.
“Why didn’t you come and talk to someone who knew that deer,” Smeltzer said of the conservation officer. “That woman should never have a gun again.”
The deer used to visit Doug Smeltzer, Barbara’s husband, in his shop while he worked.
“As far as shooting the deer, that’s what they did,” he said. “But you know what? They shot a friend.”
“She is one of those miracles,” Suchoski said. “Once in a lifetime.”