Kei Ju Farm in Petoskey unlawfully took in injured wild animals — until DNR killed them (2022)

Kei Ju Farm in Petoskey unlawfully took in injured wild animals — until DNR killed them (1)

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A Northern Michigan farmer took in wild animals without a license. The DNR didn't approve, and came to see her. What happened next had her in shock.

John CarlisleDetroit Free Press

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Julie Hall, co-owner of Kei Ju Farm in Petoskey gets kisses from Pongo a six year old goat on Saturday, May 1, 2021. The farm sits on 11 acres with three acres used as a farm to offer refuge to a variety of animals from Llamas to emus, chickens to goats, rabbits, horses and other animals. Several volunteers work on the farm that is open to visitors during the week and weekend.Eric Seals, Detroit Free Press

A Northern Michigan farmer took in wild animals without a license. The DNR didn't approve, and came to see her. What happened next had her in shock.

John CarlisleDetroit Free Press

PublishedUpdated

Julie Hall, co-owner of Kei Ju Farm in Petoskey gets kisses from Pongo a six year old goat on Saturday, May 1, 2021. The farm sits on 11 acres with three acres used as a farm to offer refuge to a variety of animals from Llamas to emus, chickens to goats, rabbits, horses and other animals. Several volunteers work on the farm that is open to visitors during the week and weekend.Eric Seals, Detroit Free Press

PETOSKEY— The officers arrived out of the blue. But she knew they’d eventually be coming for her.

Julie Hall was looking out the window of her house on a cold January day, watching as the snow fell on her farm, when law enforcement officers from the Michigan Department of Natural Resources pulled their trucks into her muddy driveway. She came outside to meet them.

For 25 years, she’d run Kei Ju Farm and Rescue in plain sight,taking in wounded or sick livestockwith few complaints, other than about the drifting smell of manure. But about a year ago, the DNR says, they warned the 5-year-old lifelong farmer that she couldn’t take in wild animals without a wildlife rehabilitation license, as she’d recently done with an injured deer.

She never got that license. A year later, the department got a call from an unusually knowledgeable tipster that Hall had taken in even more wild animals, and here they were again at her doorstep. They came to see the crow and the fawn, the raccoon and the three geese, and the brown squirrel that she’d been keeping as a pet.

Almost all of these animals had something wrong with them. None of them would likely survive on their own in the wild. And none of them should’ve been there without a permit. And without that paperwork, Julie knew she could be finedor even jailed.

But it quickly got much worse than that for her.

Kei Ju Farm and Rescue sits on 11 acres on the rural edges of Petoskey, in the northwest corner of the Lower Peninsula. Julie named the farm for Keith Hall, who’s her husband’s 95-year-old father, and for herself —half his name, half hers.

“Dad is my absolute best friend,” she said of her father-in-law, a thin, quiet, World War II veteran who lives across the road from the farm in an old, five-room former hotel that’s now his house. “We’re two peas in a pod. We’re barely without each other, and when he’s in the hospital, I’m right by his side.”

He spends his days on the back porch of her house, seated on his wheeled walker, warmed by the sunshine, watching the animals and the people who volunteer to care for them. If it’s a cold day, he looks out a window from inside the housewhere Julie lives with Keith’s son, Dan, a salesman at an appliance store in town. But rain or shine, he’s always there.

For years, this was Keith’s small, family farm;home mostly to poultry and pigs. Though they would sometimes take in sick or wounded livestock.

Kei Ju Farm in Petoskey unlawfully took in injured wild animals — until DNR killed them (2)
Kei Ju Farm in Petoskey unlawfully took in injured wild animals — until DNR killed them (3)
Kei Ju Farm in Petoskey unlawfully took in injured wild animals — until DNR killed them (4)

Then, one day, someone showed up with an orphaned baby squirrel.

“I was just a farmer, and they knew that I could take care of animals,” Julie said. She agreed to take it and try to help it survive.

Soon after, someone else came by with a blind raccoon, and she took that in too. Next came a crow with a broken wing. Then three geese wounded by buckshot. She gave them all names and made room for them among the farm’s emu pens, chicken coops and goat barns.

One night, in late fall of last year, two women showed up in the middle of the night with a 2-week-old fawn they said they’d found standing over its dead mother on the side of a highway. “Those women were brokenhearted,” Julie said. “I didn’t feel like I had an option. I just had to take it.” Even though she had just been warned by the DNR about that other deer she’d taken in last year, she kept the fawn with the goats and fed it their milk. She named it Faline, after Bambi’s cousin.

“I didn’t plan on taking in 'babies this' and 'babies that,' ” she said. “But all of our wildlife rehabbers up here were gone. And everybody kept telling me that —and they kept saying —‘We need your help.’ So I wasn’t doing it to be against the law or to hurt anyone. I was doing it because I was a farm girl that knew how.”

She knew she wasn’t supposed to house these wild animals without a license. But she won’t say no to any living thing that’s hurt. “I can’t turn away. There’s something inside me that won’t let me.”

Because, she said, she can relate.

She’s had cancer four times. She’s diabetic. She has fibromyalgia. Sometimes she has seizures. And her first-born son died of cancer just a few months ago at age 38. Life has been a blur of illness and painand a feeling of powerlessness against nature and fate. Rescuing these ailing animals from a likely death in the wild and nursing them back to health gives her a small degree of control over life.

“I still can take care of things,” she explained. “I can still make things well.”

The protective, nurturing atmosphere that the farm exuded began drawing ailing people, too.

Kei Ju Farm in Petoskey unlawfully took in injured wild animals — until DNR killed them (5)

“A lot of broken people come here,” she said. “I have a lot of special people here, special needs and different things. I have one therapist that sends her clients here; this is their therapy. And I have a lot of autistic children that just follow me around the farm all day, which is OK.”

Kim Tuggle was a wound care nurse until a virus infected her brain and left her unable to work. A friend who’d suffered a head injury had been a regular volunteer at the farm and suggested the tranquil atmosphere might help her recuperate. “I fell in love the first day I was here,” said the 44-year-old. “It doesn’t matter really where you come from, if you’re doing community service or if you’re just here ‘cause you’re hurt, you just find a spot. The animals accept you, Julie accepts everybody and just kind of teaches you as you go.”

Soon after she came here, she brought her husband, who's the pastor at a local church. Now he’s here several times a week, one of its most enthusiastic volunteers.

“It’s like a petting zoo on steroids,” said Pastor Michael Tuggle, 59, as he fed the goats. “But they do more than that here. Everybody’s put to work, or they’re not, depending on who you are and what you want to do. There’s just really no limitations on what you can do here. I fell in love with a pig, and if you’d told me that before I came here I’d have laughed at you.”

Kei Ju Farm in Petoskey unlawfully took in injured wild animals — until DNR killed them (6)

There are no rules on the farm, no real organization other than a list of daily chores that need doing. Some visitors stay overnight in one of the six rustic campers on the property. Others pitch a tent next to the barns for a more immersive experience among the animals and their noises and smells.Anyone can show up unannounced and roam among the animal pens or along the trails through the woods, or they can ask to help with chores. And every evening, big meals for the volunteers are cooked by 95-year-old Keith at his hotel house across the road.

“After you’ve been here once, it’s your farm,” Julie said. “If you’ve been here before, you just wander around your farm and you play with your animals and you take care of things.”

There’s a small wedding chapel full of icons and eclectic religious statues where several people have gotten married. There are fairy houses crafted by young girls and their moms out of braided vines and twisted branches in a shady cove. There arebibles wrapped in plastic standingat the farm’s four corners, a trick Julie adopted from a friend who did the same thing and swears her house survived a tornado because of it. And there’s a pet cemetery in the woods for animals on the farm who died here.

“I call it my heaven on Earth,” said Betsy Garber, who was feeding the chickens and who paints little art pieces that lie scattered throughout the farm. She was staying in one of a half-dozen trailers set up on the property.

Kei Ju Farm in Petoskey unlawfully took in injured wild animals — until DNR killed them (7)

“This is the best medicine,” said the 67-year-old, who was recovering from a traumatic brain injury. “It’s a place to let it go, if you want to be with the crowd, or if you want to take a solo walk thru the woods. Do you want to grow flowers? Do you want to grow vegetables? Do you want to ride a horse? Do you want to cuddle a baby goat? Everybody just flows. You just work together. Somebody needs help with this or that or whatever, and everybody minds their manners, and it’s just respect and peace.”

Last summer, Julie allowed the wrong broken person onto the farm.

“She’s one of these —God love her —‘love goes around to everybody’ people and she tries to help everybody, which is where this originated, because she tried to help somebody and they couldn’t be helped,” said Wanda Losher, Julie’s attorney. “When you can’t help somebody, you just gotta cut them loose. You can’t help everybody. You want to, but you just can’t.”

A young woman from the area came asking to help out. She seemed to blend in with the volunteers, learned how to feed and care for all the animals — the livestock, the pets, the wild birds in the trees. And the wounded wildlife. But she was fired for stealing money from the farm and, Julie said, for not revealing a criminal past that forbids her from beingaround children. The woman was so angry she called the DNR, named every wild animal kept illegally on the farm and told them exactly where each could be found.

That’s why, on a snowy January day, several officers from the department came to the farm with a precise list of which animals they were looking for, as described by a very specific person. And that’s why Julie knew they’d be coming.

Julie came out of the house onto the snow-covered farm as they came to her door. She says she was cooperative, the officers disagreed in their report. They told her they were there to take the animals, and she was instructed to bring them one by one.

She brought out Sassy the blind raccoon, Poe the broken-wing crow, Pigeon the pet squirrel, and the three old geese. They had her place each animal into a cage, and the cages were loaded onto one of the trucks in the driveway. But when she brought out Faline the fawn, officers pulled out a syringe and injected the deer with something, and soon it was down on its side, and soon it wasn’t moving anymore.

“They did it right in front of Dad,” Julie said. “It was wicked. He loves these animals so much, and for that to happen in front of him is horrible.” She insists the officers euthanized the deer on the spot. The DNR says the deer was merely tranquilized at that time because deer don’t handle transport in a truck well.

Regardless, all the animals were taken away, and all of them were killed.

“The thing that frustrates me the most is if somebody would not have reported it to the DNR they wouldn’t have said anything, because I don’t believe they didn’t know, because she’s been here for 25 years,” said Pastor Tuggle. “She was breaking the letter of the law, I get it. They’ve got a job, and if they let her do it, they’ve got to let everybody do it. But she wasn’t doing any harm.”

Julie was charged with violating a law that forbids anyone from taking in wildlife without a rehabilitation license, a misdemeanor punishable by 60 days in jail and/or a $100 fine. A trial is scheduled for September.

“I gotta be careful what I say, ‘cause I got some pretty strong feelings on this case,” said Losher, her attorney. “The DNR was supposed to manage our natural resources, but it seems like they’re there to kill all the wildlife that’s come into contact with humans. Like that crow —I mean, instead of euthanizing the crow they could’ve given it to a different rehab. There were a couple rehabs that contacted me that would’ve taken it, but the DNR didn’t even look. They didn’t even care.”

The DNR, its spokespeople will tell you, is not heartless. But someone has to manage wildlife in the state. The farm, they say, did not comply with basic regulations. Julie never got the license that everyone must get if they want to take in wild animals. And people can’t just choose to ignore state laws.

“We don’t want people just to keep wildlife, whether they’re in bad shape or wounded or sick,” said Lt. Jim Gorno of the DNR Law Enforcement Division in Gaylord. “The whole goal of the rehabilitators is to release animals back into the wild, and based on the health of these animals, that was not going to happen. You can’t release an animal that’s sick or diseased back into the wild, and you can’t keep it in a facility that’s healthy and clean. You don’t want to contaminate other animals. There’s lots of things you have to look at.”

Kei Ju Farm in Petoskey unlawfully took in injured wild animals — until DNR killed them (8)
Kei Ju Farm in Petoskey unlawfully took in injured wild animals — until DNR killed them (9)

The DNR says the state needs to license and inspect places like this because animals could otherwise suffer under poor care in substandard facilities. And when wildlife is kept without the proper licensing in unapproved facilities, the department generally removes those animals and transfers them to another rehabilitation facility if the animal is healthy enough. But that wasn’t possible in this case, said Ed Golder, DNR spokesman, in a statement.

“We don’t know the origin of these animals, and therefore don’t know if they have received vaccinations or medications, have contracted diseases, or what they may have been exposed to,” he said. “In addition, all the animals that were removed from the facility showed little fear of humans and were in very poor physical condition. DNR officials believe that the animals would not have survived if released back to the wild or to licensed rehabilitators.”

Ultimately, the policy of the department is that wildlife is just that —wild. And it’s meant to live outside captivity.

“We try to manage the health of Michigan’s wildlife on the whole, and if these animals were left in the wild they would die naturally because they’re sick,” Gorno said. “That’s what nature does —it takes care of its own, and the strong survive and the weak will perish, and, darn it, that’s what wildlife is and that’s what wildlife populations do. So I don’t want to sound cold, but we can’t take in every sick or wounded wildlife in the state. It’s just we don’t have the facilities and it’s just not good for wildlife populations.”

It was a cool morning in spring. Keith sat on the porch in the sun. A farm cat rubbed against his leg. He looked down and smiled. “Well hi, Fluffy,” he said. “He comes to see me every morning.”

He’s still bitter about the loss of the farm’s animals earlier this year, which he watched through a window from his usual winter spot in the house.

“It was very painful,” he said, sitting in his rolling walker as volunteers arrived for the day. “It’s crazy. I mean, she wasn’t doing any harm. She was helping them animals, feeding them every day. A lot of people liked those animals. But that’s the DNR for you.”

Kei Ju Farm in Petoskey unlawfully took in injured wild animals — until DNR killed them (10)

Julie walked the muddy paths of the farm as the sun rose above the trees. She stopped at each pen to say hi to each of the animals, who were crowing and bleating and barking to greet the day. “Everybody wants their breakfast,” she said.

She’ll try to finally get that wildlife license, she said, though it’s been suggested to her that a conviction on this misdemeanor would make it far less likely that the state would grant her one. For now, a sign written on cardboard and stuck inside a plant pot hanging from a barn reads, “I’m sorry we no longer take in wildlife babies. Please call DNR.”

She held a mug of coffee carefully with an arm that was in plaster cast. The other was wrapped in a bandage. The week before, a German shepherd that she took in attacked her so viciously she had to have emergency surgery to repair the bone-deep gouges in her arm. Maybe, some have told her, she’s just too welcoming, not just of people, but animals too. Sometimes they can turn on you. But she refuses to change. Anyone or anything that’s suffering, whether on two legs or four, is welcome here.

“I would never turn somebody away,” she said. “I just believe that I was allowed to live through all the crap that I’ve had, through all the cancer. I mean, I wasn’t allowed to live for nothing. The least I can do to give back to everyone is to be here for everyone. I feel like it’s the right thing to do.”

John Carlisle writes about people and places in Michigan. His stories can be found at freep.com/carlisle. Contact him:jcarlisle@freepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @_johncarlisle, Facebook at johncarlisle.freep or on Instagram at johncarlislefreep.

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