• Death in the wild
    July 20,2013

    It’s a case of people with good intentions taking opposite views on an emotional question.

    The question: What do you do when you find an apparently motherless fawn alone in the woods?

    Deer occupy a storied place in the Vermont woods, and fragile fawns seem to embody the delicate beauty that grows into the sleek and agile woodland creature valued by so many Vermonters.

    When people find a fawn alone in the woods, they immediately understand the animal’s vulnerability and helplessness. That’s why some are tempted to take the animal home and to raise it until it can be released back to the woods. Or they take it to a rehabilitator who has more experience and skill in handling wild animals.

    The problem is the law, a conflict well described in a commentary by a Marshfield woman that appeared in Sunday’s Herald and in a news story describing her dilemma.

    Julie Gresser had heard from her neighbors that there was a fawn in the woods and the mother was dead. Gresser ended up taking the young animal to her house. But after Fish and Wildlife officials heard about it, they came to her home when she was not there, seized the animal and destroyed it.

    Fish and Wildlife policy does not allow the rehabilitation of deer either by private citizens or professional rehabilitators. When game wardens find orphaned fawns, their policy is to euthanize them.

    Gresser says that the cruelty of this policy has led to the creation of a sort of underground railroad of people transporting orphaned fawns to rehabilitators out of state or keeping fawns illegally at their homes. She thinks the policy should be changed.

    Fish and Wildlife officials have a different take on the problem, and if their policy appears on its face to be cruel, it is apparent that it is motivated by the same concern for the wildlife that motivates Gresser and others.

    Patrick Berry, commissioner of Fish and Wildlife, says that rehabilitation of fawns doesn’t work. Fawns require instruction from their mothers in avoiding predators and finding food and an adequate site for wintering. Animals that do not receive that instruction perish within a month or two of their release. Releasing into the wild a fawn raised in captivity is itself a form of cruelty, in Berry’s view. Barring rehabilitation is also seen as a way of preventing the spread of chronic wasting disease.

    Berry says that when people find fawns in the woods their mothers are often nearby. Thus, separating fawns from their mothers in an attempt to rescue them is actually to impose a death sentence on a young animal that would otherwise have been reunited with its mother when the humans went away.

    The woods are no picnic for wildlife. Nature takes its toll on deer, young and old. Berry makes the point that wild creatures feed on other creatures, creating a natural process of “death and renewal” that supports a wide variety of wildlife. Well-intentioned humans cannot alter that process. In fact, Vermonters with close experience of the outdoors tend to develop respect for the complex realities of life and death.

    Should game wardens euthanize helpless fawns that they expect will die within a few weeks? It’s a hard thing to do, like euthanizing the afflicted family dog. But there is a case that it is the less cruel choice.

    Rehabilitators say that they are more successful than Berry says they are in rehabilitating wild animals, but Berry says his judgments are based on scientific research and that the studies do not exist supporting the rehabilitators’ position.

    It’s clear that Gresser and Berry are both motivated by a feeling of responsibility for the wildlife around them. Berry says he might have cited Gresser for taking a wild animal illegally, but he didn’t because he understands Vermonters’ love of wildlife. His lenience seems well advised. After all, there doesn’t seem to be an easy answer, or an answer at all, to the fact of death in the wild.

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