Jeb Wallace-Brodeur / Staff File Photo
A white-tailed doe and her two fawns pause while grazing near Partridge Road in Barre Town two years ago.
On the first Sunday of June this year, a tremendous thunder-storm rolled into our little town of Marshfield. Waves of fierce winds bent our trees sideways or uprooted them altogether. The windows of our home shook as never before. Twenty minutes later, we were out with chain saws helping our neighbors cut centuries-old trees fallen over their demolished car as the chorus of saws rang up and down the streets of our town.
In the midst of this destruction, my kind neighbor told me the “very sad story” that she and her husband had found a dead doe in their woods three days before. The following day, they discovered a pair of days-old fawns crying in the woods. Have you ever heard a fawn crying? It sounds very much like a baby. My neighbor and her husband called the Vermont State Police dispatcher who told them that if they called the Fish and Wildlife Department, “they will just come out and shoot it.” So my neighbors suffered through two days of listening to the starving fawns cry, not knowing what they might do to help.
Hearing this story, I immediately asked my neighbor to show me where she had seen the fawns. The forest was a tangle of hundreds of fallen and splintered trees, but eventually, we heard the bleating of one tiny fawn and found her tucked under a downed tree. I rushed home with her, made a bed of hay on our protected screened porch and within one hour received fresh goat’s milk and a bottle from my neighbors.
This little fawn had a passion to survive and was easy to care for. She basically needed protection from predators and goat’s milk from a bottle.
She provided inspiration and hope to the residents of our little street during a time of destruction and loss. Within a day, I had contacted several wildlife rehabilitators to begin to learn how to care for her and how we might get her to a licensed rehabilitation center where she could be properly protected and released back to the wild. Meanwhile, she thrived and grew — an amazing and gentle creature. I was careful that she had as little human contact as possible.
I learned a lot during the ensuing days as I tried to work with the wildlife rehabilitation community and the Fish and Wildlife Department. Fish and Wildlife was given my name by the first rehab person I spoke to (as required by law) and they immediately wanted my address as well as my neighbors’. But I had learned that they were likely to take the fawn and shoot it, so as I tried to find a safe (and hopefully legal) place for her, I did not give them that information.
In short order, I learned that fawns are safely and legally rehabilitated in New York, New Hampshire and Maine and that until three years ago, this was also the case in Vermont. Apparently, even now, Title 10, Appendix 9, 7B, of the Fish and Wildlife regulations states that “the rehabilitation of fawns may be allowed” by licensed wildlife rehabilitators.
Because of this, I wasted precious days trying to negotiate, through the licensed rehab community, with the Fish and Wildlife Department. What I did not know, until it was too late, was that the current commissioner, Patrick Berry, has adopted a “non-negotiable” policy that all orphaned fawns must be shot or left to die in the woods.
“Yes, it’s always very sad at this time of the year,” a game warden told me. “We find a doe dead on the side of the road with two little fawns just standing there, and we have to leave them there or shoot them.”
From my discussions with Fish and Wildlife, I came to understand that the department holds to this policy in its effort to prevent cases of chronic wasting disease, which deer may contract if they are fed animal protein. They also say that they don’t want another episode similar to “Pete the Moose,” when a private citizen made a moose calf a pet, resulting in many problems as the moose grew. The problem is this shoot-or-starve fawn policy is not only unnecessarily cruel but is also likely to promote the very problems Fish and Wildlife says it is attempting to prevent.
After talking to licensed fawn rehabilitators in New York and New Hampshire, I learned that it is not particularly difficult to safely rehab fawns, as they can fairly easily return to a deer herd after being sheltered and fed for six to 12 months. On the other hand, when an uneducated and inexperienced private citizen attempts this, there are a number of serious problems that might ensue. It is, therefore, critical that these animals receive care from licensed rehabilitators.
Unfortunately, Vermont does not allow this. So instead of Fish and Wildlife sending a message to caring citizens — call us if you find an orphaned fawn — the message is out: Whatever you do, do not call the Fish and Wildlife Department or you will experience the same heartbreak that my neighbors and I did here at the end of the first week of June.
On that Saturday, just hours before moving this beautiful, gentle fawn to a safe place where she would have had a chance at life, while my husband and I were briefly away from our home, a Fish and Wildlife warden arrived at our house, searched our property and discovered the fawn on our back screened porch. He (illegally, apparently) entered the porch and took the fawn as my elderly neighbor ran after him crying and pleading with him to reconsider. After two hours of frantic phone negotiations between his superiors and myself, he was ordered to shoot the fawn and did so.
Can we step back and look at this? There must be better way and one that does not create such division and animosity between citizens of Vermont and the Fish and Wildlife Department. Because the people of Vermont care about fish and wildlife, they decided to set up a Fish and Wildlife Department and because the people of Vermont care about wildlife, many good citizens are not going to just listen to abandoned fawns crying as they starve to death in their yards. It is important that the Fish and Wildlife Department is willing to have a dialogue with the citizens who created the department.
No one wants deer herds to contract chronic wasting disease. (There apparently has never been a case in Vermont.) The most likely way this and other problems will occur is if uneducated people attempt to care for fawns and make critical mistakes. What happened with Pete the Moose is a classic example of a situation where a citizen did not partner, early on, with the Fish and Wildlife Department to rehabilitate a wild animal safely.
Anecdotally, I have heard of another person in Vermont who, a couple of years ago, faced this same dilemma. Apparently, for eight days, she listened to a fawn crying out for food in her yard. It slowly starved to death. She said she did nothing because this was what she was instructed to do by Fish and Wildlife. It was a terrible experience, and she told a friend, “I will never do that again.”
If this rigid policy, which allows no humane options for orphaned fawns, goes unchanged, then undoubtedly the underground railroad system of hiding and caring for or transporting these animals across state lines will grow. Yet after speaking with a number of people in the Fish and Wildlife Department, it is clear that without a show of public concern by Vermont citizens, this policy will continue to be enforced.
There is a better way. Join with me in helping to open a public discussion with the Fish and Wildlife Department, and together we can change this policy. Please e-mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org for more information as to how you can help or call Patrick Berry or Kim Royar at the commissioner’s office, (802) 241-3700.
Julia Westervelt Gresser is a resident of Marshfield.MORE IN Perspective
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