Murray was cutting hay when he caught a sudden movement out of the corner of his eye. He slammed on the brakes and jumped out of the tractor. There on the ground was a spotted mule deer fawn no more than a day or two old.
Deer love to bed in hay fields. It’s not a safe place for a fawn. Their instincts are to stay motionless when faced with danger. That doesn’t end well with a swather moving at 7 mph.
“We can really move with the new models,” Murray said.
The fawn’s right rear leg was severed cleanly just below the knee. It was tiny compared to Murray, who is a mountain of a man. It was bleeding and in bad shape. Murray, who had told his wife he wasn’t too fond of animals when they first married, gathered up the fawn and ran it to the house.
There his wife, Veesha, was waiting and proceeded to clean the wound and care for the fawn — in shock from the day’s events.
“We didn’t think it would live,” she said.
Veesha has a way with animals. Her six dogs, flock of ducks, dozens of canaries, and full chicken coop are happy animals. They’re not pets — they’re all family members to the Murrays. A hunter herself, she cared for the wounded deer, bottle feeding it and applying medicine to the wound.
While Bryon spends most days and nights working the Murraymere Farm — in the family for four generations spanning more than 100 years — he called often to check up on John. Bryon’s concern and tenderness with the fawn revealed a side of him Veesha had never seen.
“He was very concerned. He’d call several times a day and ask how little John was doing,” Veesha said.
As the fawn grew, it had the run of the large farm in the Penrose area, but stayed close to the house.
“When he wants out, he jumps the fence. But when he wants back in the yard he comes to the front gate,” Veesha said. “He could come and go as he pleased.”
Her dogs adopted John, caring for it as it healed. The fawn became one of the pack.
“They are very protective of him,” Veesha said.
When the deer hunting season opener started Sunday, the Murrays decided to do their best to protect John. They hung a blaze orange hanky loosely around its neck. Then Veesha’s son, Will Littell, took a picture and posted a plea to Facebook.
“Powell hunters, this is John. John lives in the Penrose area around our pastures. John also has 3 legs and lives around our place, so don’t shoot John,” he wrote in the post.
The next morning Littell awoke to find his post had gone viral. It eventually drew more than 1,000 shares. With that kind of exposure, it was only a matter of time before it caught the eye of local game wardens. And despite the Murray family’s big hearts and good intentions, rules are rules.
“I had no idea it would be seen by the masses,” Veesha said.
On Tuesday, John’s life changed dramatically. A representative for the Game and Fish came by to load him in a trailer, telling the Murray family the deer had to be relocated.
Dan Smith, the Cody Region’s new regional wildlife supervisor, said in an interview that it’s against the law to possess a big game animal in Wyoming — and he warned that raising a fawn is a bad idea.
“We want to keep our mule deer wild,” Smith said. “When it gets older, it will become aggressive.”
The state doesn’t issue permits to care for big game animals. And they don’t have the resources to care for injured wildlife. Despite the death that would have come for John in the hay field, you must let nature take its course, according to the law.
That, of course, is easier said than done. When faced with the decision between what’s legal and what’s morally acceptable for the Murrays, they choose to follow their morals, Veesha said. Had they done the legally appropriate thing when they found him in the field, John would have been put down that day, she said.
“Legally we screwed up. But when it comes down to it, I have to try to sleep at night. So I guess if I have to try to sleep in jail, so be it,” Veesha said. She added that Game and Fish personnel “have a job to do. Our job is to be the stewards of the land and the animals on it.”
Despite being charged with upholding the law, even area game wardens understand the circumstances that drive someone to help an injured wild animal.
“I admire him for having a big heart,” said Scott Werbelow, Wyoming Game and Fish Department Cody Region game warden supervisor. “But it is against the law.”
Game wardens and biologists at the Game and Fish are often faced with the ugly reality of the worst part of their jobs. While stories may only relay that a bear was dispatched or a bison was killed in a traffic accident, the employees at the department often have to pull the trigger or clean up after a human/animal conflict. It is not the part of the job they enjoy and can cause emotional stress.
Werbelow once found himself wrestling a hand-reared full grown buck, at great personal risk, into a trailer for relocation after the “pet” deer started jeopardizing the safety of children in the neighborhood.
“It can be a danger,” Smith said. “The damage has already been done on this deer.”
When the Game and Fish showed up to take John away, Veesha removed John’s scarf, hugged him and then led him into the back of the trailer. Bryon couldn’t be there to see John taken away.
“He was tore up over it,” Veesha said.
As the Murrays continue to farm, they know there will be more fawns in the field; it can’t be avoided. But Bryon plans to do his best to avoid hurting fawns during future first cuts.
“I look much closer now,” Bryon said.
John’s future is uncertain, but with his disability and little experience in the outdoor world, he’s at a decided disadvantage. The Murrays hope they gave the fawn the best chance they could.