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.