The Bambi Effect
Peace River Wildlife Center’s Facebook page blew up this past week when we posted about the rescue of an approximately four-day-old white-tailed deer fawn. We got “likes”, “shares”, and lots of comments. Most of the comments were of the “aww” nature, but a few were concerned about the fawn’s chances of survival out in a place called “nature.” Assuredly, we have to make some difficult decisions at times and occasionally take a leap of faith, but this case was pretty straightforward. Although we do not see many deer at PRWC, we are lucky to have a rehabber from New York State who winters in our area and volunteers with us. Diane Hime rehabs numerous fawns every year and assured us that the best “person” to raise a fawn is its own mother.
The fawn was found in the Yucca Pens Unit of the Babcock/Webb Wildlife Management Area. Surrounded by residential development, citrus groves, and pastureland; Babcock/Webb is 65,758 acres of hydric (wet) pine flatwoods—one of the few and largest remaining tracts of undeveloped habitat of this type in southwest Florida. Yucca Pens is a 14,577 acre segment of this natural refuge for native Florida wildlife. Unfortunately, exotic plant species have been introduced accidentally and intentionally over the years throughout Florida and now pose a threat to our wildlife as they displace native flora and fauna. Not only are some plants toxic, but few of them provide a nutritious food source for our animals.
Melaleucas were introduced in the 1880’s from Australia to help dry up the Everglades (now there’s a great idea!). Downy rose myrtle, introduced in the 1920’s from Asia as an ornamental, is resistant to fire and out competes native plant species regrowth after natural (and controlled) burning. Japanese climbing fern, introduced from Asia in the 1930’s, strangles out native plant species. As these and many other invasive species crowd out the native plants, the animals are left with nothing to eat and no appropriate habitat to call home. Florida Fish and Wildlife is constantly battling these invasive plant species, just as they do the invasive animal species that threaten to displace our native populations.
FWC workers were spraying herbicide on invasive plants and did not see the fawn waiting under the brush for his mother’s return. The baby’s natural camouflage kept him well hidden and his instinct to freeze when in the presence of a potential predator worked all too well in this instance. It is normal for the mother to leave her young alone for long periods of time the first few days of his life as mom forages and draws attention away from the defenseless youngster. Just as rabbits do, the mother will return to nurse the baby only two to three times a day. As the fawn gets older, he will start to follow mama around as she feeds, but knows to stay in one place for the first week or so of his life and she will return to him. The doe will never range far from where her fawn is located.
As soon as the FWC workers noticed the fawn had been contaminated, they rinsed him off with water, but since the chemicals they were using are oil-based, they knew they had to have him checked by professionals. He was brought to PRWC where he was bathed with Dawn dish soap (rehabbers’ favourite weapon against toxic substances), had his eyes and ears checked for damage from the chemicals and water, and given supportive care. After his bath he was bundled up and dried off, then he spent the night in a bird cage—the only cage with bars close enough together to keep his tiny hooves from poking through and getting injured.
Early the following day the fawn was taken back to where he was discovered, to be reunited with his mother. She was not in evidence while the release crew was there, as expected. Just because we didn’t see her does not mean she didn’t see us. Since this was where she left her fawn the day before, we know she will come back to look for him there. The area is at least 15 miles off the beaten path, far from where most people venture, so the less human intervention in the reunion the better.
We all want to help these animals, especially when it is such an adorable little creature as this fawn. Sometimes, though, the best way to help is to do nothing. A fawn raised in captivity will have little chance at a normal life. Unless raised in a group of at least 10 conspecifics, he will imprint on humans and not have the social skills to navigate his adult life successfully. One of the best ways to help wildlife is to be cognizant of the fact that every choice we make has far reaching implications. Even as seemingly innocuous a choice as what vegetation to plant in your garden can cause ripple effects through time that can impact many other species of plants and animals. Sounds like the premise for a new sci fi thriller. Bambi meets the Butterfly Effect. Spoiler alert—it all ends in zombies and vampires, because everything these days does.
by- Robin Jenkins, DVM