A cache of the Wisconsin DNR's Facebook page.
Public relations flacks are notorious for trying to bury embarrassing news in Friday evening press releases, but that time of day turns out to be a favored time for squelching public feedback as well. The Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (DNR), in the face of an online maelstrom of criticism over a SWAT-style raid on an animal shelter near Kenosha that ended with the killing of a fawn, shut down its Facebook page just as the weekend was starting.
It all started on Monday, July 15, when the St. Francis Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, a no-kill shelter in Bristol, was raided by the DNR. A total of 13 law enforcement officers -- nine DNR agents and four sheriff's deputies, as reported by shelter staff -- arrived to execute a warrant to confiscate and destroy a fawn, named Giggles, that was delivered to St. Francis Society by an Illinois family.
The incident remained out of the public radar until this week, when the Milwaukee television station WISN aired a story about the raid. A pair of anonymous tips led a warden to surveil the shelter, complete with aerial photography, in order to acquire a warrant.
WISN's report quoted a shelter worker describing the officers as "all armed to the teeth" and noted that its staff was "corralled" while agents retrieved the fawn. This employee observed the fawn being carried out of the barn in a "body bag" over the shoulder of an agent; the DNR states that the animal was only tranquilized at the shelter and then later euthanized at another location.
Needless to say, the mental image of Bambi being taken down by armed cops has provoked furious interest. A copy of the on-air WISN report posted to YouTube had racked up tens of thousands of views by Friday night. By Saturday, the raid was a top story on CNN. The story has also been picked up broadly by other media outlets, with reports published by the AP, Huffington Post, Gawker and the Daily Mail, which even name-checked Bambi in its headline.
Defending its actions, the DNR cited state statutes (169.04) restricting the possession of wild animals, as well as the threat of chronic wasting disease (CWD). Deer captured in the CWD zone established by the state (which includes Kenosha County) may not be rehabilitated into the wild, and are required to be euthanized per DNR regulation.
But it wasn't merely the death of Giggles the fawn that has incited intense public interest -- it was the way the raid was conducted. In a press release issued by the shelter, Saint Francis president Cindy Schultz says the agents were inappropriate in their conduct. She says that shelter staff were detained for over two hours and prevented from providing animal care during the raid, that agents "rifled through drawers and cabinets" in the course of their search for Giggles, and that a shelter volunteer who took photos of the scene with his cell phone had it confiscated by a deputy who then proceeded to delete the images.
In a report published by the Kenosha News, DNR conservation warden Jennifer Niemeyer said shelter staff were detained due to a non-compliant response when agents asked about the fawn. And when asked by WISN about the amount of resources utilized by the DNR for this enforcement action, Niemeyer compared it to an illegal drug raid. “If a sheriff's department is going in to do a search warrant on a drug bust, they don't call them and ask them to voluntarily surrender their marijuana or whatever drug that they have before they show up," she said.
That comment and level of force for the raid elicited even more negative reaction, which swiftly took on political overtones. Objections were raised across the political spectrum about the large number of agents and deputies involved, their tactical stance and their interactions with shelter staff. Commentaries decrying the DNR were published at both liberal and conservative outlets, from Daily Kos to Hot Air.
"We seem to be sliding towards a police state, and not even deer fawns are safe from the goon squad," wrote Michael Hodges, a Chicago-based author and outdoors enthusiast. He summed up the reaction: "The Wisconsin DNR, through sheer ignorance, has managed to unite Republicans, Democrats, Progressives, Tea Partiers, hunters and animal rights activists."
As the story traveled around the world, outraged readers started sharing their thoughts about the raid on the DNR's Facebook page. Previously online at Facebook.com/WIDNR, the page received many hundreds of comments through Thursday and Friday, and the pace of comments ballooned as word of the raid spread.
The feedback was primarily critical of the DNR's actions. Many commenters declared the incident to be a PR embarrassment for Wisconsin, and in the grand tradition of online snark, were oftentimes sarcastic in tone. Many of their comments were left on weeks-old posts (see screenshots in the gallery at top). Most tellingly, though, was simply the rate of posts made directly to the page's wall, which accelerated to over a dozen per minute on Friday afternoon.
It all proved to much for the DNR, which pulled the plug on its Facebook page on Friday evening.
Before doing so, though, the DNR had issued a pair of statements about the raid on its Facebook page. On Thursday, it posted this statement:
Last week our warden staff had the difficult and emotional job of removing a fawn that was illegally taken out of the wild and into captivity. None of our staff take joy in these situations. The department does the best it can to educate the public about keeping wild animals in the wild. In the end, we are charged by the citizens of Wisconsin to carry out state laws mandated by the legislature. It is a responsibility we take very seriously. We don’t have the ability to pick and choose which laws to enforce. Wardens did request voluntary compliance from the facility. When that didn't happen, our staff took precautions to keep everyone safe as they executed the required search warrant. We are always very empathetic to those involved in these situations and understand how difficult they are to all who are involved.
As of the time the Facebook page was removed, this statement had attracted over 900 comments, most critical in nature.
The DNR posted another statement on Friday:
THE REASON FOR OUR CAPTIVE DEER LAWS
Chronic wasting disease (CWD) is a fatal nervous system disease known to naturally infect white-tailed deer, mule deer, moose and elk. Though it shares features with diseases like mad cow disease in cattle and scrapie in sheep, it is a distinct disease known to only affect members of the deer family. CWD has been discovered in wild deer, elk, or moose in 17 states, including Wisconsin. Deer that are taken into captivity in areas of the state where CWD has been discovered are required to be euthanized. There are no licensed rehabilitation facilities in the state which are authorized to rehab deer in a CWD zone. State and federal laws prohibit the movement of deer taken from the wild and held in captivity illegally from being transferred to a rehab facility out of state without authorization. Learn more about CWD on our website here: http://dnr.wi.gov/topic/wildlifehabitat/wildlifehealth.html.
This attracted nearly 200 comments, and was the last public communication from the department before it shut down its Facebook page. No official DNR news release about the matter has been published online. However, as noted in a follow-up story aired by WISN on Friday evening, the department has reported receiving death threats and being "inundated with complaints" about the raid.
DNR spokesperson Bill Cosh did not respond to a request left on his cell phone for additional comment. As of Saturday morning, the DNR's primary website, dnr.wi.gov, was down as well.
With the Facebook page removed and the website down, where does that leave members of the public who want to provide feedback to or contact the DNR about its actions? One Australian outraged by the incident has launched an online petition, which is being promoted via an associated Facebook group. There is also the "Justice for Giggles the Fawn" Facebook page, which was launched Thursday, as well as a Facebook group with a similar theme. And there is ongoing discussion on Twitter, where users are directing comments toward the DNR's account, @WDNR, though at a far lower frequency than was the case on Facebook.
But when it comes to giving feedback to the DNR, there is another venue that is being suggested.
That's the Wisconsin State Fair, which opened Thursday and runs through Sunday, August 11. As noted in an article in the DNR's magazine Wisconsin Natural Resources that invites fairgoers to come visit, its exhibit is located "just south of the cream puff pavilion." It remains to be seen, though, whether or not DNR Secretary Cathy Stepp or any other person in a position of authority with the department will be on hand to face the public.