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Orphaned Fawns, Pet Deer, and the Right Thing to Do

“Hey baby, come check this out,” my wife said from the backyard.

As I approached, I saw a small, speckled creature with enormous ears. About the size of a medium-sized dog, but perched on spindly legs, I looked into the eyes of the fawn scuttling around the property line.

“Hmm,” I said, “Little fawn. Cute little boy.”

My wife, who had always had to take in a stray and had to wade through the tailgates of free-ranging puppies at Wal-Mart, looked at me with the same eyes the fawn had. “He looks lost! Can we hold him?”

I drank my coffee and went back to the kitchen, “it’s fine. It’s not lost, I’m just hanging around.”

She was heartbroken and demanded to know how I could tell at a glance.

Well, here it goes.

Identifying an orphaned deer

Whitetail deer, like those found in abundance throughout Mississippi, molt in the fall and winter, which results in thousands of cute little fawns being born from late April to about mid-July of the following year. When born, these fawns will have a redder coat than their parents and are covered in hundreds of small white spots. These spots help the fawn join the myriad blooming wildflowers and grasses in the spring and summer when it is born. As a bonus of protection from good mother nature, the fawns have not been shipped which prevents predators from smelling them. Therefore, the mothers of these lactating deer try to stay away from their young as much as possible so as not to rub off on their own scent. By October, young fawns usually lose their spots and at that time they are foraging rather than nursing, well on their way to adulthood.

With that in mind, if you see a spotted fawn in the spring and summer, chances are it won’t be with its mother right next to it. Mom is probably hiding in a grove nearby while the kids explore the world. Alternatively, momma doe may have left junior behind to go get some food as she is still eating for two.

One of the best signs to see if a fawn is orphaned and in distress is if it is dehydrated. A dehydrated baby deer is a deer that cannot nurse for some reason. Maybe mom is dead, or maybe she’s sick and not producing milk. Whatever the case, these dehydrated fawns can be easily identified by the position of their ears. A dehydrated fawn will have its wide ears curled back at the tips or, in later stages, will collapse and become unresponsive to stimuli. If a fawn has nice, narrow ears and walks, it’s probably not an orphan. Let it be. Mom will be very wary of human scents on her baby and may want nothing to do with it if you try to cuddle with the fawn. Even worse, if you remove the fawn, the doe’s milk will begin to dry up in just 24 hours.

As the old timers say, “Ears are straight, the fawn is great. Ears are curled, it’s alone in the world.”

What to do if you find one?

So you have an orphan deer on your hands. Your baby is sick, his ears are curled up and he’s just plain old pathetic. You have watched the fawn for hours and it has not moved away nor has a mother come to care for it. For confirmation, you may even have found a nursing doe killed by a car a few blocks away. What are you doing now?

The best and most correct answer is to find a local wildlife rehabilitation group that can take the animal. Although not advertised due to lack of funds, these little known wildlife heroes are State/Federal Commission authorized Wildlife Rehabilitators, Caregivers or Veterinarians located throughout the state. A good resource to find one locally is MS Wild Life Rehab.org. If you succeed, call your local protection office as soon as possible.

Until the animal can be picked up or transported to a rehabilitation center, keep it warm and dry and do not attempt to feed it any food other than clean water.

Can you keep it as a pet?

The simple answer is no. Now re-read this sentence if you have any questions. In Mississippi, it is illegal to keep a deer as a pet. If you are convicted of one, you are facing at least a Class 3 misdemeanor and could be looking at a fine of up to $1000 (plus fees) and/or up to 6 months in jail. It is also illegal to import white-tailed deer into Mississippi. This is for the good of the animal.

Wild animals taken as pets are no longer wild, but they are never truly pets. Once the steps are taken down this path, the animal is in a strange catch-22 situation. It can never be released into the wild because it has become so dependent on humans that it can never learn to properly care for itself. However, it cannot be properly vaccinated and cared for to be anything other than an easy target for passing poachers.

Pet deer were recently banned in Arkansas. In neighboring Tennessee it has long been illegal to house wild deer.

So remember all this when your doe-eyed wife calls you to the deck.

I have to get this woman a dog.

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