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Wild Animals Fare Poorly in Captivity, Pose Risk

By DAVID RAINER

The discovery of a fawn or baby wild animal by itself may leave people compelled to take action. At the time, picking up the wild animal in an attempt to “rescue” it might seem the right thing to do. Almost without fail, that is the worst course of action. Wild animals in captivity do not fare well.

A recent incident in Cleburne County illustrates this point exactly. A buck that had been picked up as a fawn was in a backyard enclosure. The family’s 12-year-old son, who considered the buck his personal pet, went into the enclosure and ended up in the hospital with serious puncture wounds from the deer’s antlers.

Holding live protected wildlife in captivity has been prohibited by regulation for many years, but prior to 2002, there was a provision for issuing permits on a case-by-case basis. As the number of animals in captivity grew, so did the problems.

Kevin Dodd, Assistant Chief in the Enforcement Section of the Alabama Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries Division (WFF), said this kind of attack is what led to a regulation change in 2002, when the division stopped issuing captive wildlife permits to individuals.

“We quit issuing permits to people who were picking up fawns or baby raccoons or squirrels or whatever,” Dodd said. “It is a bad idea to have captive wildlife. They’re not designed to be kept in pens. With the exceptions of zoos or wildlife exhibits with the means to provide for the wildlife, we do not issue permits for wildlife.”

The reason for the policy shift was that captive wildlife tend to lose their natural survival characteristics, which makes it virtually impossible for the animals to be successfully rehabilitated and released back into the wild.

“They tend to associate people with food,” Dodd said. “That’s a real problem with alligators. They feed them for a while and release them into the wild. The next thing they do is show up on the bank, looking for a handout. Their small brain tends to blur the line between the hand that feeds them and the food itself.

“In the case of deer, when they associate with people they think they’re one of them. But at certain times of the year, it’s natural for the bucks to fight among themselves. It’s just a natural tendency. When you put them in captivity, they do the same thing with humans. The only thing is humans don’t have big antlers and they’re not set up to fight with a buck. That’s where the conflict comes in. And it’s not just bucks. Does cause problems, too.”

Chris Cook, WFF Wildlife Biologist who specializes in white-tailed deer, said increased contact with humans and natural hormone production make a dangerous combination.

“Deer in captivity tend to lose their innate fear of humans,” Cook said. “Then you couple that with the increase in testosterone and the natural aggressiveness that bucks have during the rut and you’re going to have trouble. We’ve been trying – and departments all across the country – to tell people that deer don’t make good pets. They may be cute when they’re fawns, but it’s a lot better to leave them alone and let the doe come back to find them. If you pick up a fawn, you’ve just about signed its death warrant. Very seldom are rehabilitated deer successfully released back into the wild.

 “During most of the year in the wild, they’re tolerant of other bucks. They do establish a hierarchy in the bachelor groups. But that doesn’t involve a lot of aggression. But as the rut approaches there is an increase in the amount of testosterone, and they become more aggressive and less tolerant of other animals. Like I said, they’re not afraid of humans and they treat them like any other animal they want to show dominance over.”

Dodd said another reason it’s a bad idea for individuals to keep wildlife is the special dietary needs of the animal, as well as providing a proper enclosure to house the animal to ensure neighbors or visitors aren’t put at risk.

“Lastly, it’s just unfair to the animal,” Dodd said. “It’s a wild animal not meant to be kept in a cage.”

One fatality has been documented because of a captive deer. In February 2003 in Choctaw County, a family had a deer in captivity. The grandfather was in the pen feeding the deer when the buck attacked. The elderly man was knocked down and gored. He died from the injuries.

Another incident happened in Butler County in 2003. The person holding the buck waited until the antlers dropped before releasing the deer. An elderly lady down the street went to the road to retrieve her garbage cans when the buck walked up.

“She reached out to pet the deer on the head,” Dodd said. “The buck interprets that as the natural behavior of another buck and he wants to fight. So he starts pushing on the lady and ended up rolling her up her own driveway. She was taken to the hospital. She was bruised and scratched from head to toe, but she survived.

“People think the danger is in the antlers, but that’s not always the case. We’ve had problems with does, too. If cornered or in a fighting mood, they’ll do the same thing with hooves. I can tell you from personal experience that a 40-pound fawn cornered in a garage can beat the living daylights out of you with its front legs.”

Another incident occurred in 2004 near Chunchula, where a pet buck was released to walk around the yard. The deer turned on a family member and sent her to the hospital with puncture wounds.

Dodd said when he was a Conservation Enforcement Officer in Baldwin County, a man had a spike buck in an enclosure. While he was showing a friend the deer, the spike attacked the homeowner, pinned him to the ground and punctured his femoral artery. The friend grabbed a 2-by-4 and hit the buck in the head to get the buck off his friend.

“They rushed the guy to the hospital, which was luckily only a mile away,” he said. “In the meantime, the buck came to and wandered up the street and terrorized one of the neighbors. The man had to seek refuge in a shed and the deer held him hostage until the man’s wife was able to hand him a gun through the window of the shed.

“We’ve had numerous incidents like this. They all end badly. Originally, they may think they’re doing the right thing by rescuing an orphaned fawn. But 99.9 percent of the time, they aren’t orphaned. It’s natural behavior for them to be left alone at times. They think they’re doing something warm and fuzzy when actually they’re sealing the fate of that animal, which is life in captivity that usually ends in termination for the deer.”

PHOTO: (By Kate Pugh) When a fawn is discovered in the wild, it does not mean it is orphaned or abandoned. In the vast majority of instances, the mother is nearby and will return to its young. Trying to “rescue” a wild animal is not recommended and the Alabama Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries Division no longer issues permits for captive wildlife to individuals.

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