How a Michigan Family's Home Became a One-Deer Preserve

A heartwarming story of sensible local government intervention. 

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Courtesy Ken Foster

When people say that love makes a family, even the most open-minded among us are not picturing a whitetail deer as part of that equation. But for one Michigan household, a deer named Lilly has been adding a unique brand of familial love since she was born six years ago on the front lawn.

Lilly’s mother had been hit by a car and was dying in the yard when she gave birth to a tiny fawn. When it became clear that the baby was alive, the Flint-area family who had watched it all happen asked a police officer on the scene if they could try to raise the little creature. He told them it was unlikely that it would survive, but that they could go ahead and give it a try.

Fast-forward to 2013, when Lilly had become a healthy adult deer and full-fledged member of a household that includes two dogs and a couple of kids. (The family have remained anonymous in the media.) A complaint from the friend of a neighbor finally brought the Michigan wildlife authorities calling. Lilly, they said, would have to go. It is simply against the law to keep a wild animal in your home.

But after a wave of national publicity, the family’s pleas to keep Lilly—who would likely have to be euthanized if they gave her up, since she could not survive in the wild—were answered. The Michigan Department of Natural Resources last year granted them an “exhibition class” permit with a limit of one deer that would allow them to keep Lilly.

Now author Ken Foster, who has written several books about the deep bond between dogs and humans, is raising funds to write a children’s book about Lilly with photographer Traer Scott. The story, he says, resonated with him because of the way it exemplifies the way people can bond with other species.

“I think when most of us hear about a deer living in a house, we think that's strange,” he writes in an email. “We think it’s not right. But when you hear the owner talk about raising her, literally from birth, and the personal relationship they have—between the humans and the other animals in the house—you can begin to understand the story on an emotional level.  We have all grown up with that fear of families being separated, and, in fact, I think many of the stories that resonate with us as children are stories of orphans being miraculously absorbed into a new family with the lingering threat that someone might come and take them back. It’s like something from Dickens.”  

Foster, who frequently rescues pit bulls and other dogs from the streets of New Orleans, where he lives, recently went to visit Lilly. He says she was very friendly with him, especially after he offered her some fruit he had gotten from the hotel buffet. “She really seems like a very large, graceful dog,” says Foster. But he, like Lilly’s owners, emphasizes that wild animals should not be kept as pets, and that Lilly’s situation is really one of a kind.

In other words, don’t try this at home. “Of course, people shouldn't have deer as pets,” says Foster. “Even though they love her and fought to continue to care for her throughout her life, [Lilly’s family] tell anyone who calls asking to not follow their example. If you find an orphaned deer, there are sanctuaries where they can be taken to live out a more normal life.”

Still, Lilly’s case is an all-too-rare example of a sensible solution to a seemingly insoluble legal problem. “In this case, though, following the letter of the law and removing a five-year-old deer from the only environment she'd known would not have solved anything—it really would have been disastrous,” says Foster. “So the compromise that was reached, that allows Lilly to stay in her home, with the home registered as a sanctuary with a capacity of one deer, becomes a great lesson in problem-solving and in thoughtful legal work.”

About the Author

  • Sarah Goodyear has written about cities for a variety of publications, including Grist and Streetsblog. She lives in Brooklyn.