As Vermonters, we are fortunate to have an abundance of wildlife living in close proximity to our homes. This everyday awareness of wildlife not only fosters a love for these animals but occasionally encourages well-meaning people to treat wild animals like pets, often with tragic results.
We have experienced several recent examples: Because black bears have increased in population and broadened their geographic range, humans have attracted them in greater numbers to food sources such as bird feeders, chicken coops, beehives and garbage cans, leading to a 65 percent increase in the number of nuisance bears being killed by property owners.
Two baby skunks recently taken from the wild under the mistaken assumption that they were abandoned and in need of rehabilitation tested positive for rabies, resulting in 11 people (and three pets) having to undergo painful rabies shots.
And a few weeks ago, a fawn was illegally seized from its natural environment while likely waiting for its mother to return. The young deer was then treated like a family pet, living on a back porch and being fed goat’s milk from a baby bottle until the Fish and Wildlife Department was forced to intervene.
The dedicated conservation professionals who work at the Fish and Wildlife Department spend their careers ensuring that Vermont has a healthy and stable wildlife population. They know from years of experience that wild animals cannot be treated as pets. In particular, they know that captive-raised deer and moose do not survive long once released back into the wild, and that once released there is a risk that the animal will spread serious disease to the rest of the herd. For other species, the department works closely with committed, well-trained, licensed rehabilitators to successfully rehabilitate and then release animals back into the wild.
Researchers in both Connecticut and Missouri tracked fawns released into the wild with radio collars after attempted rehabilitation and found that they almost never survive. All fawns in the Connecticut study died within 85 days; nearly all fawns in Missouri died within 100 days, and the few that survived lived as tame deer in people’s yards.
Simply put, deer brought into captivity will never again live as truly wild animals. And while a fawn living in the woods must deal with a daily struggle of life or death, a fawn that is taken from the woods will most certainly perish.
It is important to realize that most fawns taken for rehabilitation have not actually been abandoned by their mother. Fawns are odorless when they are born and are left alone by their mothers for the first three weeks of life with the exception of intermittent feeding. Fawns’ ultimate survival depends upon them learning from their mothers how to evade predators and avoid humans and human development, where to feed and what to eat, and how to survive the harsh winters by finding specific deer wintering areas. Without this modeling, fawns simply cannot survive.
Across the country, captive deer have tested positive for chronic wasting disease, a gruesome, fatal disease that can persist undetected for years, cannot be tested for in live animals, and has led to the death of tens of thousands of wild deer in places like New York and Wisconsin. Do we want to put the whole population at risk for the sake of one animal that would likely not survive anyway? The result is that our game wardens are put in the awful situation of having to euthanize the animal.
We love wildlife here in the Green Mountain State. Vermont is proud to boast the highest participation rate in the country for wildlife watching. But we need to make sure we maintain a healthy relationship with the birds, mammals, reptiles and other critters that live in our woods. For the sake of wild animals throughout the state, and out of respect for the natural world around us, we ask you to remember these lessons when you encounter these animals, and to help us keep wildlife wild.
Patrick Berry is commissioner of the Vermont Fish and Wildlife Department.
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