"You can still see the scar," says Michael Smith, nose-to-nose with the whitetail deer known as Bambi. She stands, with no fear of Smith and his visitors, as he points out her slightly skewed muzzle. This is where Smith, a carpenter by profession, "Superglued her face back together."
Michael and his wife, Ilene, have had Bambi since May 2003, when she was about two weeks old. Neighbors who knew of the Smiths' animal rehabilitation work brought Bambi and her more severely injured sister to their Dodge County home. Both had been hit by the car that killed their mother, then ravaged by coyotes.
The sister died, but the Smiths nursed Bambi back to health. At first, they carried her about. Now she begs for crackers and gives "kisses." She's part of the family.
"She loves to be where she can see, listen," says Michael. "She loves to play, loves to be brushed and look all pretty."
Bambi is without a doubt Wisconsin's most famous deer. That's because the state Department of Natural Resources - not wanting to let private citizens keep deer as pets, due to concerns about chronic wasting disease - wanted to confiscate and kill her. The Smiths sued the DNR to stop this, garnering national attention and sympathy.
In February 2006, Dane County Judge John Albert denied the DNR's request for summary judgment. The DNR appealed this ruling, and lost again.
The Smiths estimate they've spent $15,000 on legal bills to save Bambi, plus another $5,000 on her enclosure. And they plausibly contend the DNR has spent far more trying to take Bambi away. "That's the taxpayers' money," sighs Michael. "I'm paying both sides of this."
Last September, a settlement was reached allowing Bambi to stay with the Smiths. Media trumpeted this result: The Smiths had won; Bambi was safe at last.
But the Smiths' ordeal has not ended. Last month, the DNR inspected Bambi's enclosure, as the agreement allows, and found multiple violations of state administrative code.
The Smiths disagree, noting that the inspection report apparently got some things wrong. But the DNR's action virtually assures that keeping Bambi will entail considerable additional expense - for attorney fees, structural changes, or both. (The Smiths have set up a "Bambi Fund" to offset costs, c/o American National Bank, 115 Front St., Beaver Dam, WI 53916.)
"I think it's total harassment," says Michael. "Because we wouldn't let them come out and shoot her, they are going to make it as miserable as they can." Adds Ilene, "If you buck the DNR, they will hold a grudge. And they have astronomical funds."
The Smiths, clearly, are a bit paranoid. They suspect their phone is being tapped and lie awake worrying the DNR will come onto their property and shoot Bambi - something they insist the DNR warden who found the recent violations once threatened to do. Says Michael, "Their basic goal here from day one has been to kill Bambi."
DNR officials deny this, saying they're willing to work with the Smiths to fix the code violations. "We're not determined to kill that deer," says DNR spokesman Greg Matthews. "That phase is over with. The courts have made it clear the Smiths can keep the deer."
But DNR legal counsel Michael Lutz confirms that if the Smiths don't make the required changes, "we'd go back in court...seeking a court order to have [the enclosure] brought up to standards." If the judge agrees and the Smiths fail to comply, "they'd be in contempt of court."
Michael and Ilene Smith grew up among animals and are surrounded by them today.
They have three dogs and "too many" cats - somewhere between 15 and 20. The warren of coops behind their rural home near Columbus is full of chickens, turkeys, ducks, pied mourning doves and fantail show pigeons. There's a duck named Lucky and a sheep named Smoky.
Michael notes proudly that most of these animals will "die of old age." And he calls Bambi "all the pet you could ever want," saying she gets "as much love and attention as any person would give a kid." But Michael is also a hunter, and the mounted head of a buck hangs in his living room. That's the way he was brought up: "Things were tough, and you needed to put meat on the table."
Bambi, due to the trauma of her early life, inspires a different impulse: to nurture and protect. "When something is hurt, don't you want to take care of it?" asks Michael. "I think that's our nature."
This put the Smiths on a collision course with the DNR. The agency, relates Lutz, denied the Smiths a deer farm license because Bambi was not legally obtained. Rules regarding CWD prevent her transfer to a licensed deer farm. And she's far too tame to be returned to the wild.
That left only one option, which Lutz lays out: "If we had taken that deer back, we likely would have killed it."
Under the negotiated settlement, the Smiths are now subject to the DNR's rules for game farms, even though they were expressly denied a deer farm license. Says Lutz, "I don't see anything inconsistent there."
The Dec. 26 inspection report declares that the main part of the Smith's fence is 22-gauge wire, while the code requires 14.5-gauge or heavier. (Gauge numbers get smaller as wire gets thicker.) The Smiths paid a professional engineer more than $600 to confirm what, to even a casual observer, appears obvious: The fence wire is much thicker than 22-gauge " or "gage," as the DNR report misspells it.
"All wire thickness measurements were consistently between 12 and 13 gauge," wrote the engineer, Michael Laue.
The DNR report also put Bambi's pen at "approximately 16,884 square feet," short of the required 21,780. Laue measured the actual size at 18,609 square feet and mapped out an expansion, since added, to meet the DNR threshold.
Finally, the DNR says the Smiths must build a second fence around the entire perimeter - again to conform to the requirements of a license they've been denied. The Smiths say this would cost thousands of dollars.
Dr. Jens Luebow, a Madison veterinarian overseeing Bambi's care, has appealed to DNR Secretary Scott Hassett. He attests that Bambi, on a recent visit, was in "excellent condition" and showed no signs of any disease. He calls the Smiths "animal-loving, law-abiding citizens."
Luebow, in an interview, says the CWD risks involved with keeping one deer are low. He documents his visits with Bambi with a digital camera, to look for changes in appearance or behavior that might indicate disease. "She's well taken care of and isolated from other deer."
Given the current impasse, the matter will likely end up back before Judge Albert, who has "jurisdiction to enforce, interpret or modify" the settlement. The Smiths hope the judge will use that authority to curb the DNR's regulatory zeal.
"For one deer, what is the problem?" asks Michael, exasperated. "My only hope is that Bambi outlives them all."