to rehab or not to rehab

Fairly late one night last week I got a phone call from a friend.  Seems her family had found a very small fawn wandering around by itself, bleating, clearly abandoned by its mother.  (At least, so they said – I don’t know enough about deer behavior to judge, but my friend’s mother had worked in wildlife rehabilitation in the past and seemed to know what she was talking about.)  When I asked what they were calling me for, they said they were going to try and find a nursing doe to adopt it and needed help to keep an eye on the baby and make sure it didn’t get away from them in the woods.

If happening across another nursing doe by lucky chance and getting it to adopt this fawn sounds like a long shot, well, you’re not wrong.  However, apparently state law forbids wildlife rehab centers in Ohio from taking deer.  Because they’re considered a nuisance species, injured and orphaned white-tailed deer are simple euthanized.  Although my friend and her family knew it might come to that, they wanted to at least try to give their baby another shot, and I (somewhat reluctantly) agreed to tag along.

So there the four of us were, me, my friend, her mother, and her teenage sister, sitting at the edge of a field and peering into the darkness while the fawn wandered around, bleating.  We were hoping that its cries might attract some adults, but it quickly became clear that we were on a fool’s errand.

Wildlife rehab, and the euthanization of so-called nuisance animals, can be a controversial subject.  Someone keeping a baby deer and trying to raise it themselves could get into serious trouble with the law.  Because I have a background in ecology, I certainly understand the position of the state government – deer are genuinely overpopulated in many areas, to the point where they can damage forest ecosystems.  An ecologist is (usually) trained to think on the level of populations rather than individuals, and from that standpoint culling and euthanizing are completely acceptable.  In an ideal world maybe we could reintroduce some of deer’s natural predators, such as wolves and mountain lions, to our state, but that simply isn’t realistic.  What’s more, even in the case of animals that aren’t overpopulated, I sometimes wonder whether it’s worth spending time and money rehabilitating injured individuals when those same resources could be spent on projects that could have more of a population-level impact, like preserving important habitat.

But try looking into the eyes of a shivering, bleating fawn the size of a large house cat and telling yourself that it has to die for the good of the ecosystem.  Not everyone can do that easily.

In the end, wildlife rehabilitation is often more about making ourselves feel good about our relationship with the natural world than it is about actually helping threatened species.  Is that a good thing or a bad thing?  You tell me.

2 thoughts on “to rehab or not to rehab”

  1. I don’t know how anyone with a conscience could abandon a fawn. They are so beautiful. Having said that, one of the many Ohio deer that are overpopulating the state, recently ran in front of my car. $1200+ later, but I’m lucky the damage wasn’t more serious. The deer ran off, but I think it must have been mortally injured. :(

    You’re probably aware of this story that has hit the news.

    1. I did hear about that. Someone started telling me about an officer who had resuscitated a deer fawn with mouth-to-mouth, and I immediately wanted to tear my hair out in frustration, because yes, it’s beautiful story until you remember that state law requires orphaned deer to be euthanized! Argh.

      As for someone “abandoning” a fawn – if it absolutely clear that a fawn has been orphaned or abandoned, and you live in a state like Ohio where they can’t be rehabbed, it is probably far kinder to euthanize it than to let it wander around by itself until it starves to death or is killed by a predator.

      It’s such a tough issue ethically. If deer really are overpopulated to the extent that they are damaging native ecosystems, is it truly ethical to raise and release an animal that may ultimately do further harm? Does the good of the one deer outweigh the good of the whole ecosystem?

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