SANTA PAULA — Five exotic deer, two of them fawns, have been caught in the state's bureaucratic headlights, complicating an Oak View animal lover's crusade to save them from possible slaughter.
The fallow deer were to be put out to pasture after a state-run agricultural trust purchased Faulkner Farm, a well-known Santa Paula landmark that drew thousands of visitors to its pumpkin patch and Christmas tree farm.
"They just don't fit the program," said Larry Yee, a board member of Ventura-based Hansen Trust, a University of California-administered nonprofit group that helps support Ventura County agriculture. "We're just trying to give them a happy home."
Diana Frieling is more than happy to give the reindeer-like animals that home at her rural Ojai Valley spread. But new and complex state regulations governing the sale and transfer of the deer species have so far stymied her efforts.
The trust may have bought the 27-acre farm and its seven massive Clydesdale horses, but it has belatedly discovered that it it didn't buy the deer, Yee said.
"Turned out . . . the former owners didn't have the right kind of permit to allow them to sell the deer to us," he said. "But we didn't know that. They didn't know that. No one knew that until we tried to give the deer a new home."
A frustrated Frieling fears that the clock may be ticking and that the most likely future of Oscar, a white buck, and the four other unwanted deer that once delighted children will be as an entree.
A Feb. 5 letter from the Department of Fish and Game noted that, to prevent the spread of disease, the deer may not be moved. That means that Frieling is prevented from acquiring the animals--unless she can turn her land into a state-approved shelter--and their owners are banned from moving them, except to slaughter.
Frieling feels a sense of urgency because state officials told her last week that they have sent a letter to the animals' owners, Ventura schoolteachers Linda and Allan Ayers, giving them 10 days to either renew the permit that allows them to keep the deer or to lawfully dispose of them, in other words, kill them. Efforts to reach the Ayerses, who sold the farm to the Hansen Trust last summer, were unsuccessful.
"If you read the codes they are referring to, it clearly says the only way they are going to leave that place is on a plate," Frieling said. "I know they are raised for meat, but these five deer--no matter what anybody says--were put there for people."
State officials say that Frieling is overreacting and that no decision on the animals' fate has been made--although slaughter is an option.
"Diana can't receive the deer because we need to do things by the books," said Pamela Swift, a veterinarian with the Department of Fish and Game. "The regulations are difficult to understand and they're still new. . . . We're still in the process of verifying what Diana says is happening."
Frieling is unconvinced, especially considering that she has spent months trying to adopt the animals with the big brown eyes that have galloped into her heart. She has invested more than $1,000 in her adoption efforts since October, including building a large enclosure on her 5-acre property with a specific type of wire she had to import from Canada.
Bureaucratic missteps--including being sent the wrong kind of permit application on two occasions--have hampered her efforts, she said.
"The first thing they sent me was a desert tortoise permit [application] and, believe me, the fencing is a lot easier," Frieling said.
Still, the state may be inching closer to a decision.
This week, authorities said they are studying whether Frieling may qualify for a shelter permit, which would allow her to take the "abandoned" deer from their 1,600-square-foot farm pen to the more spacious quarters she has prepared.
Meantime, she is stepping up her lobbying efforts.
Frieling has requested a hearing appealing the Feb. 5 letter that denied her the permit she had believed she needed to adopt the deer. She has contacted animal welfare groups in an effort to enlist support. And Saturday, she plans to place petitions in Ventura County pet and feed stores asking people to rally to her cause.
"Somebody asked me to give these deer a home. I said I would and I'm trying to do that," she said. "But it's way more than that. I'm actually in the position of trying to give them life."