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Woman Defies the Law for Love of Deer

Californian has been told repeatedly not to feed the animals. She's in conflict with neighbors and game officials.

May 11, 2003|Brian Melley | Associated Press Writer

COPCO, Calif — The sky is leaden with a threat of rain when the deer amble down the steep hillside to Thana Minion's weedy patch of property near the Oregon border.

A breeze is blowing as she slowly moves toward the scattered herd, pointing out Dingbat, Nasty and Mini among about 30 deer. She gets close enough to pick ticks off the ears of a doe, scratch its back and kiss it on the head.

Minion is so passionate about these animals she calls brothers and sisters that she's willing to go back to jail after serving two terms for feeding deer.

For the last eight years, a storm has been brewing over her love for animals and the conflict that it has created with neighbors and game officials as she nourishes a growing herd in violation of state law.

Despite warnings from a judge not to feed the animals, Minion continues to flout the law in an extreme example of the dispute pitting friends of wild animals against wildlife experts.

Minion acknowledges that she's a bit strange, but she says her care for deer comes from the kinship of animals that flowed naturally from her American Indian heritage. Her father was Nez Perce and her mother was part Cherokee and Choctaw.

"Kids always said I was strange," she said. "I spent more time with animals than I did with people. Animals were attracted to me and I was attracted to them."

But some who have seen her hug the beasts and curl up with them in midday slumber say there is nothing natural about her behavior.

The area is known by some as a "deer factory" because deer outnumber people 3-to-1, and it was hunting that lured Al Martin here from Southern California to the shore of Copco Lake, where the Klamath River flows up to a dam and spreads out across a narrow valley.

But he doesn't even bother to get a deer tag anymore. He said Minion has wrecked the sport, taking all the skill out of the hunt by humanizing the creatures.

"It's like putting antlers on your dog and shooting him. That's how tame [they] are," Martin said.

Martin's not the only one who has given up.

The district attorney, who vowed to put Minion back in jail if she continued doling out a mix of corn, oats and barley, is now trying to rewrite a law so that feeding big game animals will be an infraction punishable by a fine, not a misdemeanor punishable with incarceration.

"I disagree with the law. I think it's absurd," said Timothy Pappas, assistant district attorney for Siskiyou County. He said the law makes criminals of nearly every animal-loving resident in the area, as well as farmers whose alfalfa fields are deer-grazing grounds.

Pappas, whose wife is friends with Minion, has drafted legislation on behalf of his boss that would only make it a crime for poachers who bait deer. He said he was told that it's too late to introduce the bill in the Legislature this year, but hopes that it will be taken up next year.

Wildlife officials say they weren't consulted on the proposed bill and consider it a grave mistake.

As communities continue to expand into wildlife habitat across the state, human and animal conflicts are increasingly becoming part of daily life in rural areas, suburbs and even cities.

Minion's activities are just the tip of the iceberg, said Fish and Game spokeswoman Lorna Bernard. So far, Minion has not been harmed by the animals, but that's not the case elsewhere.

Attacks by coyotes have increased in Southern California, bear problems are on the rise in the Sierra, and deer occasionally stomp or gore a person or pet.

The Department of Fish and Game plans to launch a public education campaign this month to discourage people from feeding wild animals.

Feeding animals makes them dependent on an unnatural food source, and can alter migration patterns and concentrate animals in ways that can be devastating if there's an outbreak of illness, wildlife officials say.

Last year, about two dozen dead deer were found along the American River Parkway in Sacramento because of lungworm. The disease was caused by overpopulation, which was attributed to artificial food sources.

"Mother Nature has ways of regulating them," Bernard said. "If we're artificially feeding them, we're messing with the grand plan."

Minion, 53, who worked as a phone company secretary for 13 years, said she began contributing to the deer food chain after a long bout with alcoholism.

She said she looked in the mirror one day and didn't recognize the bloated face looking back at her. She quit drinking that day and said she hasn't touched a drop in nine years. She credits the animals in part for helping her get through periods of depression.

"I go outside and cry and cry, and the deer come out," she said. "The deer seem to understand."

Some of her neighbors were less understanding. They complained about her feeding and she complained about their hunting. Sheriff's deputies and game wardens investigated. Minion and Martin filed restraining orders against each other.

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