By Jill Henderson – Show Me Oz –
About this time last year, Dean and I were working on a new garden bed beside the front porch. It had been a warm spring and the weather was perfect for working outdoors. We were both intently hacking away at the compacted soil with our shovels and rakes when I happened to look up. What I saw took my breath away. Not two feet from Dean stood a doe quietly nibbling at the clover in the grass. My heart raced. This couldn’t be happening, could it? She was close enough to touch. Thinking she would bound away at the slightest breath, I stood like a statue, absorbing every little detail. She raised her head and looked into my eyes and right then, I knew she was no ordinary deer.
I whispered to Dean, “Look!”. Not knowing the deer was there, he abruptly turned from his work and practically ran into her. She didn’t flinch a single muscle, meeting his incredulous gaze with one of her own before returning her attention to the clover at his feet.
For a while, we just stood there completely astonished, exchanging questioning glances. What on earth was she doing here and why didn’t she run? She didn’t seem to be injured or sick – though she did seem rather thin and particularly small in size, even if she was just a yearling. After a few minutes, I walked inside to grab the camera – no one was going to believe this.
When I returned, she raised her head, stretched her long neck towards me and sniffed my hands. I couldn’t resist the temptation to touch her back – a light brushing of my fingers across her jawbone. But when she took a step forward, Dean instinctively put his arm out to stop her progress in my direction and gave her a verbal warning. But instead of running, the strange little doe took one easy step backwards and stared at us – waiting.
It was then that we understood. This little deer wasn’t injured or starving. She wasn’t being brave or even stupid. And as much as I would have liked her to have been a spirit deer from the magical forest, she wasn’t even wild. This deer had obviously been around humans before and she absolutely no fear of us. In fact, she had sought us out even as we banged away with our shovels and rakes and busy chatter. Her behavior told us everything we needed to know about her – this little yearling on our doorstep was, or had been, someone’s pet.
I have always said that the wild animal I am most afraid of is the one that isn’t afraid of me. And while she was beautiful and extremely gentle and had obviously been someone’s pet, she was still a deer. We knew that if we let her stay or encouraged her in any way, we would be doing her an injustice.
As difficult as is was to do, we tried to chase her from the immediate confines of the “yard”, but she absolutely refused to be truly frightened by our yelling, clapping, whistling, charging, brandishing of rakes, shovels and tree branches. She’d trot far just enough away to be out of our reach, but the minute we turned our backs she would come back for more.
Over the next few days, the little doe now known as Daisy, returned again and again to our door. After lengthy discussions as to Daisy’s behavior, her origins and her current situation, we concluded that she was most likely captured in the wild as a newborn, raised in captivity and ultimately released. But no matter how sweet or small or dainty she was, Daisy was a deer and sooner or later she would begin to act like one. She belonged to the wild and we were going to have to do whatever it took to get her back there.
We continued to chase her out of the immediate vicinity of the yard whenever she appeared. We did our best not to do it with anger, but rather with patience. Once she moved to the edge of the woods around the house, we let her be.
Eventually Daisy got the message and her visits to the yard became less frequent, but she would often appear out of nowhere as we worked in the garden or down in the meadow, or when we were out walking in the woods. At those times, we would let her say “hello” and then shoo her on her way. Within a few weeks, we would spot her on the ridge or down in the valley watching us. We never ran her off when she stayed a respectful distance like that – and in this way we felt she had some security as she adapted to life in the wild.
Once, when we were building our chicken coop and pig pen, she actually walked into the enclosure with me without my noticing! I turned around and there she was. Another time, we were clearing brush in the meadow when the neighbor suddenly appeared at the boundary fence on his very loud four-wheeler. I hadn’t seen Daisy until that moment, but suddenly she was there beside us, tail up in alarm, waiting for us to make a move. We ignored her. But after the neighbor had gone, Dean nonchalantly crossed the meadow to the driveway. Daisy watched him closely and when he stopped to pick something up, she ran to his side like she would if she were following a dominant deer in the herd.
We knew Daisy would have to learn a lot in a very short time if she was going to make it in the wild. Besides her lack of fear of humans, she also lacked the basic knowledge of her natural habitat, including types of forage, shelter, predators, other deer and methods of evasion. On top of that, is soon became painfully evident to us that Daisy didn’t even know how to “talk” to others of her own kind.
We had been hoping that she would be taken in by the small herd of does that frequented our meadow before they began to give birth to their spring fawns, but each time she tried to go near them they either shunned her, ran her off, or simply ran away from her. If she didn’t make friends now, it would be several months before the does with fawns would even look at her. Meanwhile, we continued to dissuade her from making contact with us – pushing her further and further into the woods.
The good news was that Daisy appeared to be finding plenty of good forage and was in much better health than she had been when she first showed up.
As I was contemplating writing this article, I contacted Howell County Conservation Agent, Matt Franks, to ask him what he knew about pet deer. I was surprised to learn that this is a very a common occurrence in this area. He explained that most people don’t set out to have a pet deer, but that the majority of cases are the result of finding a young fawn that appears to be abandoned.
He went on to explain that while young fawns are able to stand and walk within the first two to three weeks of their lives, they are not very mobile. In order to protect her young from predators, a mother deer will select a secluded place amidst brush, brambles or tall grass to hide her fawn while she forages.
Relying on its natural camouflage to escape detection, the fawn will lay down and remain motionless until its mother returns. Usually the doe will bed her fawn down near convenient forage, but sometimes she will have to leave the area in search of food, leaving her fawn alone for several hours. But unless she is killed or severely injured, she will always return to feed her young.
It is during these times of necessary absence that the fawns are in the most danger – both from predators and from humans. Unable to run away and relying on its camouflage to protect it, a fawn will lay absolutely still, even with a human hovering over it. With no mother in sight, the well-meaning human believes that the doe has abandoned her fawn and it is up to them to “save” it.
Agent Franks has encountered this scenario many times throughout his career. Unfortunately, once a fawn is removed from its hiding place – even if it is just for a few hours – the mother has likely returned and searched for her fawn and moved on. By the time Franks gets that desperate call for help, it’s just too late to successfully reunite the family.
He went on to say that “even if the mother is dead, the chances of providing the appropriate kind of nourishment is almost impossible. Calf milk replacer just does not work and the fawn usually winds up dying of scours due to improper nutrition. Honestly, if a fawn has truly been orphaned, it is still much better to leave it to die a natural death in the woods, than to watch it die a horrible slow death caused by scours. That’s really a sad thing to see.” he said.
Even if you were able to raise the fawn in captivity, adult deer that have become accustomed to being fed by humans and have lost their fear of humans can also become very dangerous. According Franks, there have been no fatal attacks on humans caused by pet deer in Missouri, but that every year several people are injured, sometimes seriously, by adult deer that have been kept as pets – even if they are tame. Deer aggression is usually related to food, but males are especially dangerous during the fall rut.
Franks also told me that the Department receives a surprising number of calls about wild deer with “radio collars”. Franks says that the MDC does not collar deer. What the callers are witnessing is a pet deer that has been “tagged” by their owners and set free. Usually these people think a collared pet deer will keep hunters from shooting them. If you see a collared deer, you should call the MDC immediately.
Our decision to teach Daisy to fear humans turned out to be the right one and as I explained our methods to Agent Franks, he complimented us on our efforts. “It’s not an easy thing to do,” he said “and a lot of times it just doesn’t work.”
It certainly wasn’t easy for us to watch her stumble through and counting each new cut or scrape on her muzzle and flanks, watching the other deer reject her and feeling her lonely eyes watching us from the woods was definitely hard to do. But day by day she made it and each time we didn’t see her for a while, we would just pray it was because she was happier on the wilder side of the fence.
Then one day in late summer, we saw her on the hillside above the house. As usual, she was watching us. Suddenly, a yearling buck that I recognized as belonging to our herd’s lead doe, bound recklessly past Daisy and into the woods. She immediately chased after him. A few days later, she the two of them were grazing in the meadow together.
I nearly cried that morning as Dean and I watched the two of them together. After all her struggles, she had finally been accepted by another of her kind – the crucial connection that would possibly save her life come hunting season had been made. She would be safe now among her own kind. As we watched, they moved towards the edge of the forest together. Just before she was obscured by the trees, she turned and looked right at us – and if a deer could smile, Daisy was.
Since then, Daisy has joined up with the local doe harem and has made it through her first hunting season and her first winter in the wild. She has grown so much that it is getting harder and harder to tell her from the others without seeing her hooves. But every now and then, I step out onto the porch of a morning and find a single delicate hoof print in the soil between the flagstones at the bottom of the stairs and know that Daisy has stopped by to say hello before returning again to the wild.
© 2013 Jill Henderson
A Journey of Seasons
Set in the rugged heart of the Missouri Ozarks, A Journey of Seasons is a beautifully recounted memoir filled with nature notes, botanical musings, back-woods wisdom and just a pinch of “hillbilly” humor by author, naturalist and organic gardener, Jill Henderson.
Jill Henderson is an artist, author, and the editor of Show Me Oz . Her books, The Healing Power of Kitchen Herbs, The Garden Seed Saving Guide and A Journey of Seasons can be found in the Show Me Oz Bookstore. Jill’s work has also appeared in The Permaculture Activist, The Essential Herbal, Acres USA, and Llewellyn’s Herbal Almanac.