Most fawns don’t need to be rescued

Published 9:47 pm Thursday, May 12, 2011

While cleaning trash along the shore of the Nansemond River at Willis Point recently, scouts from Cub Scout Pack 89 in Driver found a fawn nested in the tall river grass. Taking only a picture, the scouts left the fawn undisturbed, but they had a great story to tell in school the following Monday.

It’s that time of year again when white-tailed deer fawns are showing up in yards and fields, and concerned citizens want to know how to help. In almost all cases, the best way to help is simply to give the fawn space and leave it alone.

Concerned people sometimes pick up animals that they think are orphaned. Most such “orphans” that good-intentioned citizens “rescue” every spring should have been left alone. Most wild animals will not abandon their young, but they do leave them alone for long periods of time while looking for food.

Fawns, born from April through July, are purposely left alone by their mothers. Female deer, called does, stay away from the fawns to avoid leading predators such as dogs or coyotes to their location. The white-spotted coat camouflages a fawn as it lies motionless in vegetation.

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By giving it a wide berth, you also reduce the risk of inadvertently leading predators to the hidden fawn. Does will return several times each day to move and/or feed their young. You probably will not see the doe at all, since she only stays to feed the fawn for a few minutes before leaving it alone again.

If a fawn or rabbit has been “rescued” when it shouldn’t have been, it can often be released at the same location. Parents tend to remain in the area for at least a day, looking for the lost youngster.

If a wild animal has been injured or truly orphaned, do not take matters into your own hands. You may locate a licensed wildlife rehabilitator by calling the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries at 804-367-1258 (24 hours, 7 days a week), or visit the VDGIF website for the same information.

Raising a wild animal in captivity is illegal unless you have a state permit. Each animal’s nutritional, housing and handling requirements are very specific and must be met for them to have any chance of survival. Feeding the wrong food to a fawn can make it very sick and possibly lead to its death. For example, cow’s milk will induce very severe diarrhea in fawns.

Another caution: Do not chase fawns. If a fawn cannot be captured easily and quickly, then it should be left alone. A prolonged chase will stress the animal and can lead to capture myopathy, a fatal condition due to severe muscle and kidney damage.

With even the best professional care possible, the survival rate of rehabilitated fawns and many other animals is very low. More than 50 percent of fawns brought to rehabilitation facilities die before being released due to injuries they come in with and unavoidable physical stress during the rehabilitation process. Of those fawns that are released, a very small percentage survives the first year in the wild.

Furthermore, many rehabilitation facilities have to turn fawns away due to limited housing and staff. Treating fawns takes resources away from treating animals that are rare or endangered.

Wildlife managers have additional concerns about fawn rehabilitation. The process requires deer to be moved, treated (often in contact with other deer), and then released back into the wild. Often, rehabilitated deer must be released into areas with already high deer populations.

Movement and commingling of deer increase the risks that contagious diseases, such as tuberculosis or chronic wasting disease, will be introduced into Virginia’s wild deer. In fact, the recent discovery of CWD in western Frederick County has prompted the prohibition of deer rehabilitation in most of Frederick County and part of Shenandoah County.

The best advice for someone who wants to help wildlife is to keep it wild. Once people interfere, we reduce the opportunity for animals to be cared for by their natural mothers and we increase the risk of harming our wildlife heritage.