Why Fawn Rescues Fail

Why Fawn Rescues Fail

Everyone knows to not disturb a bird’s nest. In fact, many folks enforce the myth that birds abandon every egg or fledgling touched by humans.

Why, then, must wildlife agencies remind the masses each May and June to keep their mitts off “abandoned” fawns curled beneath shrubs, backyard decks, and even parked cars? And why do politicians scold wildlife agencies while “paroling” bottle-fed “rescue fawns” the agency intends to euthanize, as per science-based policy?

Well, maybe people just feel more cuddly and more capable of raising fawns than feathery fledglings. Their empathy proves so strong they can’t believe they’ll doom a fawn to early death or lifetime captivity by rushing it to the nearest wildlife rehabilitator.

“People don’t understand why an animal about human size would leave its baby alone in the woods and only check back once or twice a day to feed it,” said Professor Duane Diefenbach, a wildlife researcher at Penn State’s college of agricultural sciences. “Our offspring are highly dependent on us for years, and we invest a lot of time and effort caring for and raising them. Humans assume something is wrong if they don’t see a mother deer near every fawn. It’s hard to convince them the doe is within earshot, and that they should just walk away and leave the fawn alone.”

Few ‘Rescue Fawns’ Survive Humans, of course, are ill-equipped to shepherd fawns through their first few weeks of life. Even if they succeed, the fawn likely won’t survive its first three months and return to the wild. Connecticut researchers Scott Williams and Michael Gregonis monitored 29 injured or apparently orphaned fawns raised by licensed wildlife rehabilitators and released at three months of age in 2010 and 2011. Of those 29 fawns, 25 died within three months of their release. The 100-day survival rate for all fawns was 13.8%.

Those results, published in 2015 in The Wildlife Society Bulletin, were slightly worse than those reported in a 2004 study led by Jeff Beringer at the Missouri Department of Conservation.

Beringer reported the 100-day survival rate of 42 fawns picked up by the public and raised by wildlife rehabilitators in 2000 and 2001 was 23.2%. He also noted that his research team couldn’t account for 11 other radio-collared fawns after losing their signals. In the first month alone after the fawns’ rehab and release, 22 of them (52%) were dead. The Missouri researchers also reported that fawns living past 100 days usually stayed near human dwellings and often became a nuisance or caused safety concerns.

The Connecticut researchers reported similar concerns. Their 2015 project analyzed two methods for releasing fawns at three months old. The 13 fawns that were “soft released” had unlimited access to human-provided food and water inside their release pen, which was kept open and well-stocked so the fawns could come and go freely. The other 16 fawns were “hard-released” into an 8.7-square-mile state forest with no further aid. All fawns wore expandable radio collars, were monitored daily for 30 days, and then two or three times weekly after the first month.

All 16 hard-released fawns died within five weeks of their release. And even though four of the 13 soft-released fawns lived beyond 100 days, they stayed near their release pen, and “lacked the behavioral attributes needed by truly wild white-tailed deer to survive to adulthood.”

Easy Prey The Connecticut study reported the same causes of death for both release methods. Necropsies cited coyotes for 56% of the deaths; unknown causes for 16%; shootings (one legal, one illegal), 8%; vehicle collisions, 8%; pneumonia, 8%; and bobcat, 4%.

The Missouri study reported similar causes of death, citing canids (dogs or coyotes) for killing 15 fawns, 50%; unknown for six fawns, 20%; drowning and other accidents for three fawns, 10%; bobcats for three, 10%; poachers for two, 6%; and legal hunting for one, 3%.

The studies also noted that death rates for “rehabbed” fawns exceeded those of fawns raised in the wild by their birth mothers. Earlier Missouri studies found that fawn mortality in the wild can exceed 50%, but most fawns make it if they reach 10 weeks of age. In one study, only 16% of fawns died between 10 weeks of age and 6 months. Likewise, the Connecticut researchers said their rehabbed fawns died at nearly twice the rate of wild-raised deer in similar climates.

Both studies raised another concern about rehabbing fawns in captivity and releasing them into the wild: Besides making fawns dependent on humans, enclosing them with other fawns from across a region could expose them to chronic wasting disease and, more recently, COVID-19. Therefore, several states require rehabilitators to accept and release fawns only from their resident county and euthanize “rescued” fawns from CWD-infected counties. If the fawns spread the disease to other deer in the facility, and those deer escape or get released elsewhere, they could spread the disease even further.

Politicians, unfortunately, often complicate these situations by not explaining their state’s science-based policy. Instead, some force agencies to make exceptions. That’s especially common once people name a fawn and notify the media when a wildlife agency intends to euthanize it.

In 2011, for example, former Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker stepped in to save “Charlotte,” a 15-month-old doe that a Lake Geneva man nursed back to health after it got hit by a car that also killed its mother. The man contacted a Chicago newspaper after refusing to turn over the deer to the Department of Natural Resources. “Charlotte” eventually ended up a captive for life.

The Wisconsin DNR received death threats about two years later after euthanizing a fawn named “Giggles.” A family brought the fawn to a Kenosha County animal shelter in August 2013 after “finding” it nearby. When learning of the fawn’s situation, the DNR visited the shelter, removed the fawn, and euthanized it. Gov. Walker said the DNR’s policy should be re-examined and added, “I don’t ever want to see something like that again.”

The agency’s policy-setting board declined to change the rule, however.

Science Justifies a Hard Line As Beringer noted in the 2004 Missouri study, wildlife agencies think the science-based approach is justified.

“The money and effort expended to raise orphaned and ‘picked up’ white-tailed deer fawns does not result in the animals’ long-term survival and does not appear to be a humane alternative,” Beringer wrote. “It appears that human-habituated fawns are not likely to revert back to wild deer. Although some released deer may survive, they show little fear of humans and may become a nuisance or present public safety concerns.”

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