Huntingdon, Pa. — A Huntingdon County judge may have to decide what could be a precedent-setting case over who owns a captive deer shot in the wild.
Bowhunter Christopher Patrick, a 42-year-old high school English teacher from Huntingdon, says he shot a buck Nov. 14, and then discovered from an ear tag that it apparently had escaped from Whitetail Ridge, a local hunting compound owned by Dave and Rich Griffith.
Patrick shot the deer in Wildlife Management Unit 4A, in a disease management area where chronic wasting disease was found, and – “absent-mindedly,” he said – took it a taxidermist in Unit 4D, which is outside the disease management area and therefore was a summary violation.
For that, Patrick was fined $100 by the Pennsylvania Game Commission.
That would turn out to be the least of his problems.
He said soon after photos of the buck, which had 26 “scorable” points, began circulating, the Griffiths learned of it and demanded that he return the deer.
“They filed a writ of seizure … and I gave them the meat,” said Patrick. “I haven’t returned the antlers. I mean, the meat is the usable part. You can’t eat horns.”
Each side hired an attorney, and they see their rights very differently, with Patrick claiming any deer in the wild is fair game, and Dave Griffith asserting that because the animal was registered to his farm by the
Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture, he and his brother can claim ownership.
Griffith said the deer escaped through a vandalized fence.
Neither the Game Commission nor the state Agriculture Department is willing to get involved or address the ownership question even in generic terms, which indicates that there may be no legal precedence to guide them.
“The only thing we cited Mr. Patrick for was taking the deer outside the DMA, but that ended our involvement,” said Game Commission spokesman Travis Lau.
“We really can’t answer who it belongs to,” said Agriculture Department spokesman Will Nichols. “This is a private legal matter. We have no regulatory authority or control with regard to its outcome.”
As of Dec. 31, Dave Griffith said Patrick promised to give him and his brother the antlers, while Patrick said he and the Griffiths had only discussed some options, including whether the brothers would pay him for the antlers or provide him with a replica.
“We’re in the talking stage,” said Patrick, who admitted to weighing the prospect of a settlement against engaging in what he feared could be a costly legal battle. He said he’s tempted to ignore the Griffiths’ demands.
“I don’t know if I should have to negotiate anything. Their loss occurred the day the deer got out. I shot it legally so I’m asking myself, ‘Why should I make concessions?’”
“On the other hand, there’s an unknown here that scares me. You don’t know how a court will decide, or how many layers you’d have to deal with in a lawsuit. Look at the O.J. Simpson trial,” he said. “He was found not guilty of murder in criminal court, but guilty in civil court.”
Patrick said he is aware that however his case is resolved, it could influence how similar disputes are handled in the future. The experience has been frustrating, he said.
“Sometimes I think, ‘I’m going through all this grief for a deer.’ Don’t get me wrong, it’s the buck of a lifetime, of many, many lifetimes,” he said. “But at the end of the day, it’s just a deer.”
Dave Griffith sees the standoff as a slam to a business he said he has worked to build for 25 years. “We are a family farm and this is how we make our living,” he said. “We’ve had a significant loss, and we’re trying to reclaim it.”
The brain of the deer Patrick shot, because it was in a disease management area, was examined for chronic wasting disease. “I haven’t heard anything, so I’m presuming it tested negative,” he said.