AP File Photo
A fawn hides in the woods in South Hero.
MARSHFIELD — A kind of Underground Railroad for orphaned fawns has formed in Vermont in response to a policy adopted by the Fish and Wildlife Department.
Julie Gresser says she learned of the illicit network in early June, after hearing from neighbors in Marshfield about an orphaned fawn. She said she was taken to where the animal lay and was told the neighbors had found a dead doe with a full udder a few days before.
In what she felt was in the best interest of the baby deer, Gresser said, she took the fawn home and kept it on her back porch, feeding it goat’s milk. Gresser didn’t know what to do with the fawn and started calling animal rehabilitators around Vermont to see if they could take it in.
“I just naively assumed there would be help somewhere for getting this fawn to a place that could protect it and get it back to the wild,” she said.
What she found out is that the policy of the Fish and Wildlife Department is to shoot fawns that have been picked up by the public. Because wildlife rehabilitators are licensed in Vermont, she said she learned, they are obligated to notify the department when they hear someone has a fawn.
Gresser soon received a phone call from the department asking about the fawn and where she lived, she said, but she was careful about what information she gave.
Gresser says she was in the process of talking with people around the state who were willing to take the fawn in and raise it illegally.
“In addition to being inhumane and really creating a lot of divisiveness between the community in Vermont and (Fish and Wildlife) when there are incidents like this, they may create the situation that they say they are trying to prevent,” she said. “Because people will kind of use this Underground Railroad system for fawns because of this strict policy.”
When she was away from home for a couple hours, Gresser said, a game warden took the fawn from her back porch and later told her it had been shot.
“I don’t want to be emotional about this because people then see you as a bleeding heart, but this was a beautiful, peaceful animal. The fawn was a beautiful and vibrant animal who had a tremendously strong will to live,” Gresser said.
Behind the policy
Adam Murkowski is the deer project leader at the department. He said the reason for the policy is that fawns can’t be rehabilitated and returned to the wild because they need their mother’s guidance to survive.
“Deer are really social animals,” he said. “When a deer is really young it is really impressionable. So things like predator avoidance, what should pose a danger to the deer, that is something it should learn from its mother.”
Murkowski said deer also need to find wintering spots and he doesn’t think it is ethical to release an animal into the wild without those life skills. He cited two published studies, one in 2011 out of Connecticut and another in 2005 out of Missouri, that say fawns picked up in the spring and released back into the wild in the fall have a very low survival rate.
Then there is the issue of disease. Murkowski said chronic wasting disease is now found in deer in about 20 other states. Vermont has had no recorded cases of the brain disease, a distinction Murkowski attributed partly to not rehabilitating fawns and potentially getting a sick deer grouped with healthy animals.
“To rehab one deer at the risk of the overall deer herd is not worth the potential price that could be paid,” he said. “Vermont is very lucky to have a healthy deer herd, and we want to keep it that way.”
Fish and Wildlife Commissioner Patrick Berry said he supports the policy on fawns because of the science behind it.
“Fawns cannot be rehabilitated,” he said. “They all die within 30 to 60 days, regardless of (how they are released). Some states do (rehab fawns) — I don’t know why.”
State law allows for young big game such as deer, bear and moose to be rehabilitated, saying, “The State Game Warden shall handle the big game animal by either returning it to the wild, dispatching it in a humane manner, or, if the animal is a young of the year, he may allow the rehabilitator to possess the animal until it is well enough to be returned to the wild.”
Berry said he has the discretion to close that loophole.
“There are a thousand places in statutes where a commissioner, the secretary or the governor has the discretion to allow or not allow a specific activity,” Berry said. “This is one of those cases.”
The policy predates his tenure, according to Berry and Murkowski. It has been in place for more than three years, Murkowski said.
Berry said usually people are taking deer out of the wild that are perfectly fine and whose mothers are around, but all the people see is the lonely baby. He said that was the case with Gresser’s fawn and that the game warden requested but was never shown the dead doe.
“The reality with the fawn that this woman found is that it died because she took it home. If she had left it in the woods, it likely would have survived because there was an excellent chance that the mother was nearby,” he said.
Death in the wild is just the way nature works, he added.
“Animals that die in the woods feed a whole variety of wonderful creatures that we also appreciate in the woods. Without that kind of natural process and death and renewal there would be a lot of animals that wouldn’t survive.”
Berry said that although he could have cited Gresser for taking in a wild animal illegally, he chose not to because he understands Vermonters love wildlife.
Back to the wild
Pat Ferguson says she has been successfully rehabilitating fawns at her Field of Dreams center in Springville, N.Y., since 1995. She said authorities take the “impossible to rehab” stance with deer because they don’t want deer to be seen as pets.
“They want them to be seen as hunting targets. The only studies done on deer over the years have been failures when you (rehabilitate the animals) the old-fashioned way. ... The majority of (the New York Department of Environmental Conservation’s) budget for the year comes from hunting licenses,” she said.
Ferguson’s way of rehabbing deer, which she said has about a 95 percent success rate, involves accepting the deer in the spring, letting it live with penned domestic deer to learn how to be deer in the fall and winter, and “soft releasing” it the following spring by leaving the gate to the pen open so it can come and go. After two weeks, Ferguson said, rehabbed deer will not let her approach and do not return to the pen, becoming wild animals again.
Ferguson said the disease argument is insignificant because what she does is take the sick deer out of the population and quarantine it until it either gets healthy or has to be euthanized.
“We’re actually the best ally the state has because we pull (the deer) out of the wild,” she said.
She does agree that most of the time, people finding a fawn should leave it alone. When fawn season hits in the spring, Ferguson said, one or two people at her center are on the phone from sunup to sundown explaining how a doe purposely leaves a fawn alone the first few days of its life — keeping a watchful eye on it — until it is strong enough to flee from predators. A newborn fawn has no scent, so the mother’s absence means predators are less likely to find it.
Out of 10 calls her center gets, Ferguson said, maybe one will actually be a case where the fawn needs to be rehabilitated; the rest are fine with their mothers.
And while the “cycle of life” argument about animals dying in nature makes sense in a perfect world, she said, it goes against human nature.
“You can’t tell someone that cares about their animal, that cares about their dog, their cat and has horses, to leave a fawn and let nature run its course. It won’t happen,” she said. “What will happen is people will pick up the fawn, take it home and raise it illegally.”
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