I was born early on a beautiful spring morning in southeastern Ohio, the first of two siblings born to a two-year-old whitetail doe.
It was a time of renewal. The woods were purple and white with redbud and dogwood blossoms and fragrant with the aromas of the world coming back to life after a cold winter. The fields and meadows were erupting with green, new growth and food for animals that had lost weight over the preceding months.
I was only several days old, so my mother would conceal me in what she considered a secluded place, feed me her milk, and then leave me alone in the way that all whitetail deer mothers do. Very quickly I learned the different smells and sounds in the forest and meadow, where I grew quickly and gained strength. I could stand up on shaky legs, but I was still too young to keep up with my mother.
She was a good animal mother who instinctively knew it was far safer to leave me alone and hidden, rather than to draw predators to my location until I was larger and strong enough to be able to run with her and my twin, whom she had hidden elsewhere. I knew I would soon be big and fast enough that almost nothing would be able to catch me.
The world was a huge mystery to me, but I watched and listened. One day as I lay resting quietly along the edge of a field against some woods, I saw some strange creatures approaching. There was a pair of large, upright, two-legged animals, a smaller two-legs, and with them was a small four-legged animal that I knew instinctively to be a dog – a predator!
It was a beautiful sunny day, and for the most part the sunlight filtering through the grass and leaves fell upon my spotted coat which blended in almost perfectly with the leaves and other plants on the ground. Despite being in the open, I was very well-concealed.
The two-legged animals were very loud and did not walk quietly like the other animals I had seen in the woods; the smaller of the two-legs wandered here and there, looking at things, touching this and that and talking very loud and excitedly. The dog stayed close to them, zig-zagging, occasionally pausing to sniff a tuft of grass or leave some scent.
This was danger! I lay perfectly still and they walked right past where I was laying. It was like they couldn’t see me or smell me at all! My brown, spotted coat blended perfectly into the ground, my white spots looked like spots of sunshine falling through the new leaves onto the forest floor.
The two-legs passed by. I was safe!
Then the small dog passed very near and stopped, and although I didn’t have much scent I knew it had gotten close enough to smell me even if it couldn’t see me. It came even closer and put its nose against me and sniffed. I stood up on my trembling legs and the dog barked at me. Then the two-legged animals saw me and made some loud sounds with their mouths that caused the dog to leave me alone and run back to them.
Another chance! I prepared to wobble away but as I started to move the smaller two-legs darted over, grabbed me and picked me up!
I was held fast and had no idea what was going on. It carried me over to the larger two-legged animals and made some plaintive sounds, and I could hear them talking to each other and one of them made some stern sounds to the smaller two legs and pointed back to the spot where I was laying before he picked me up. The smaller two legs cried and made more pleading sounds, at which point the two larger two-legs talked amongst themselves some more. All the while the dog kept sniffing at my legs and scaring me even more.
As if suddenly making a decision, one of the larger two-legs took me away. In fear I bleated for my mother, a pitiful “mEehhhh” sound, but they kept walking, carrying me away from my home and my mother, who was undoubtedly somewhere nearby but also afraid of the two-legged animals and their four-legged minion.
They carried me for a little while until we reached something large and shiny. It opened up and I was put inside with the two-legs. It made some noise and motion, but I could not see outside of it, and after a while we got out of it in a different place than before.
They were actually very gentle with me, but it was no comfort because I was scared beyond belief. My new surroundings were terrifying, and the other animals inside the two-legs’ lair (a dog and a cat who for some reason seemed perfectly comfortable there) kept watching me and smelling me.
The two-legs fed me some milk, but it wasn’t my mother’s milk and it made me sick. Plus they couldn’t care for me and attend to my needs like my mother did. To frighten me even more, they constantly handled me and stroked my coat, especially the young one.
Several days passed and I was getting sick and weak instead of growing healthy and strong like before. I hurt and could no longer stand. They made concerned sounds, and kept trying to feed me but I was too feeble to eat. I was covered in my own filth and smelled awful.
The next morning they gently carried me back outside; the smaller two-legs was crying just like it was the day it picked me up in the meadow, and the big two-legs were silent, not saying anything at all – very much unlike the day they first picked me up, all excited.
I was laid softly on the cool green grass (finally something that felt familiar!), but I was unable to hold my head up and lacked the strength even to bleat. As they backed away from me, a fourth two-legged animal that I had not seen before, quietly approached me carrying something dark and cold in its hands, and as its shadow passed over me I had my final thought.
Why couldn’t they have just left me alone?
Off in the distance a yellowthroat sang and a warm springtime breeze gently rustled the new, green leaves. Then suddenly the world went black and the pain stopped.
Sadly this story happens for real every spring when unthinking people remove so-called orphaned animals from their environment.
I say “so called” because I believe that in most cases “orphaned” fawns aren’t really orphaned at all, and that some human thought it would be fun to have a pet deer or other critter, without really thinking through how much care is involved in raising a wild animal. Wildlife mothers are good moms and rarely leave their young except to feed, although they will leave them hidden to avoid drawing predators.
If you see an animal baby, leave it alone. If it has been left in an exposed area, it is ok to protect it until dark when its mother will most likely come back and move it. Contrary to the old urban legend, it is also OK to put baby birds back into their nests. If you find a rabbit nest in an exposed area, you can cover it with some boards placed over top of blocks.
In the past people would call me about their orphaned deer and ordinarily I would discover that they had tried to take care of it for a while, and failed, and called in the hopes of placing it with a rehabilitator. Ohio wildlife rehabilitators are no longer allowed to take white tailed deer, and in many cases good-hearted people will find themselves cited for illegally possessing wildlife. In almost all cases the animals have ultimately been destroyed, essentially sentenced to death the instant they were removed from their environment.
The story of the “orphaned” baby animal rarely has a happy ending, so don’t play the part of the irrational two-legs in this tragedy. Leave baby animals alone.
Jim Freeman is wildlife specialist for the Meigs Soil and Water Conservation District and a long-time contributor to the Sunday Times-Sentinel. He can be contacted weekdays at 740-992-4282 or at firstname.lastname@example.org