Deer photos overshadow a harsh wildlife reality: Leave animals alone

Before I bash you over the head with the admittedly heavy-handed message of this column, I’ll give you a few moments to enjoy the beautiful photos that accompany it.

Game warden Kristopher MacCabe feeds a baby deer.

Everyone loves a good critter photo, after all. And when the critter in question is a beautiful baby deer, all the better. In the photos, you’ll see Maine game warden Kristopher MacCabe (recently of “North Woods Law” TV fame) feeding this little buck out of a bottle. (Pedialyte, if you’re curious … goat milk is preferred, but wasn’t available on Sunday night when this deer was delivered to MacCabe’s western Maine doorstep).

You’ll see the tiny deer taking steps across a tile floor. You’ll see him curled up, all comfy, in a sweatshirt. And you’ll see a photo of him in the wild.

What you won’t see: Any photos taken of the fawn on his second day — the day that he was to have been taken to a wildlife rehabilitation facility.

That’s because the deer died.

And while the photos are admittedly cute, and I hope you enjoyed looking at them, there’s no getting around the message that needs to be sent.

The fawn takes a few tentative steps.

If you “rescue” animals from the wild, there’s a good chance that you’ve made the wrong decision. And there’s a good chance that you’ve actually doomed the critter you were trying to save.

Harsh? Sure. But true.

Emily MacCabe, Kristopher’s wife, is an outdoor educator for the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife. She said that several fawns have been delivered to wardens in the past few days. Every time, the people who deliver those fawns think they’re doing the right thing. Unfortunately, they’re often wrong.

The fawn takes a nap.

“The fawn we had on Sunday was picked up by some folks who didn’t see the mother around,” Emily MacCabe said in an email earlier this week. “They took the fawn to their home and called the warden service. The fawn was healthy when it arrived at our house, did not show signs of dehydration and clearly had been cared for after it was born.”

The people who delivered the fawn to the MacCabes had seen it being born several hours earlier, and had become alarmed when they didn’t see the mother deer with the fawn later in the day.

Emily MacCabe said the scenario was a pretty common one, and one that’s repeated several times each year by concerned wildlife-watchers.

“Although there are a few instances when the mother is killed (sometimes by a deer-car collision) or has died giving birth and the fawn requires human intervention, most of the fawns we end up with this time of year are are result of well-meaning folks who pick them up thinking they have been abandoned,” she wrote.

What the MacCabes know (and what others should learn) is that “abandoned” baby animals are most often doing just fine.

“It is normal for a doe to leave her fawn(s) for several hours or even up to a day,” Emily MacCabe wrote. “They instinctively hide in tall grass or other discreet locations and do not move. The fawns have no scent, which helps protect them from predators. We usually tell people if they come across a fawn [they should] leave the area.”

If they’re concerned, they can watch the area from a long distance away, or check back, Emily MacCabe said. By doing that, observers run less of a chance of scaring the doe away. Most often, she said, the doe is nearby, keeping an eye out.

Emily MacCabe said that even the best-case scenarios, fawns struggle after being removed from their mothers.

“Even if the fawn had survived, it would have likely been facing many health issues as it was raised by a facilitator,” she wrote. “[It] would have faced a bumpy road to getting back to the wild.”

And that bleak outlook isn’t limited to deer, she wrote.

“Fawns are very difficult to care for in captivity. Their chances of survival are greatly reduced even with the best effort,” she wrote. “They’re always better off in the wild, letting nature takes its course, than if they are taken. This applies to moose calves, too.”

So, you’re a wildlife-watcher. You love animals. You want to do the right thing. What do you do if you come across a wild animal you expect may have been abandoned?

First, the DIF&W says you should not pick up the animal and take it home. Instead, call a DIF&W regional biologist (their numbers are readily available at and ask for help.

Do it because it’s right.

Do it because the DIF&W says “If you care, leave them there.”

And if that’s not enough, look at these photos again. Then do it for the deer.



John Holyoke

About John Holyoke

John Holyoke has been enjoying himself in Maine's great outdoors since he was a kid. Today, he's the Outdoors editor for the BDN, a job that allows him to meet up with Maine outdoors enthusiasts in their natural habitat. The stories he gathers provide fodder for his columns, and this blog.