It’s an unfortunate fact of nature that not every injured or orphaned wild animal can be saved. In fact, wildlife rehabilitators estimate that only one in five white-tailed deer fawns brought to rehab facilities are ever accepted.
But does that mean the other 80% are left to perish?
Not necessarily so says Cheryl Connell-Marsh, owner of Nottingham Nature Nook, a licensed wildlife rehabilitator in East Lansing, Michigan. The reality is that most fawns brought to wildlife rehabilitators are not really orphaned at all and would be better off left alone.
Connell-Marsh receives several requests every year from people who mistakenly believe they’ve found an abandoned fawn simply because the mother could not be seen. However, it’s quite common for does to leave their newborn fawns for several hours at a time to feed.
The explanation for this behavior is that during their first three weeks of life, a fawn is uncoordinated and slow. Attempts at mobility during this time would draw the attention of predators and therefore it’s much safer for the fawn to remain hidden and still. Despite their apparent vulnerability, fawns are protected during this period by a lack of scent, making it nearly impossible for predators like coyotes, fox or even domestic dogs to find them.
“If someone brings a fawn to us and it’s clear that it was not really orphaned, we tell them to return it to where they found it”, says Connell-Marsh. The long held belief that does will abandon a fawn if it has been touched by a human is false - the doe simply licks the human scent from the fawn and moves it to a new location.
Legitimate candidates for rehabilitation occur when the mother dies before the fawn is able to care for itself or when a doe abandons a weak or small fawn after giving birth to twins or especially triplets.
Before picking one up, people who believe they’ve found an abandoned white-tailed deer fawn should observe it for several hours. In most cases the doe will return to check on it. If after several hours the doe does not return and the fawn can be heard bleating (calling), a person may consider contacting a wildlife rehabilitator.
Connell-Marsh cautions that people should not view wildlife rehabilitators like Nottingham Nature Nook as petting zoos or wildlife preserves where people can visit or view the animals. Wildlife that end up here remain for as little time as possible and receive the minimum amount of human interaction.
Such arms-length support is necessary in order to prevent the fawns from imprinting with their human rehabilitators. It is critical that deer retain their identity as deer if they are to be successfully released back into the wild. “The fewer people that interact with them, the easier it is to release them”, says Connell-Marsh.
The recent controversy in Indianapolis, Indiana where a couple was charged with illegally possessing a fawn illustrates what can happen when a fawn becomes too attached to its human caretakers. The couple maintained they were planning to release the deer into the wild when it was old enough to take care of itself, but the fact that it had been held in captivity for more than two years is a strong indication that it had imprinted with the couple and would probably be incapable of surviving in the wild.
Wildlife rehabilitators like Nottingham Nature Nook receive no funding from state or federal agencies and therefore depend exclusively on donations and volunteers for the care and feeding of the animals they accept. Young deer can be especially challenging considering their specialized dietary requirements that make them unable to drink cow’s milk or baby formula. Connell-Marsh is fortunate in that she is able to obtain goats milk from a nearby farm. During peak periods, Nottingham Nature Nook fawns can consume up to five gallons of goat’s milk per day.
Michigan law is very clear – it’s illegal to keep or possess wild animals. Nevertheless, beginning in late-spring, hundreds of people will attempt to rescue young white-tailed deer fawns they mistakenly believe to be abandoned. This is one reason why facilities like Nottingham Nature Nook spend a considerable amount of time educating the public on how to identify and handle abandoned wildlife.