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WFF Officials Put Public Safety First

January 9, 2014

By DAVID RAINER

Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources

Acknowledging that the correct action is not always the popular choice when wild animals are involved, Alabama Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries (WFF) officials say the division will always give public safety immediate precedence.

The case in point is the recent incident that involved “pet” deer located on Dauphin Island. WFF officers removed the deer, both does, from the island. Many on the island who considered the illegally transported deer as “pets” were outraged.

Fact is, the officers had no other choice because the behavior of wild animals is unpredictable and poses a safety risk to humans.

“First and foremost, and really the bottom line, is it’s a wild animal. Period,” said Chuck Sykes, WFF Director. “It’s not a dog. It’s not a cat. It’s a wild animal. You hear about it every day that somebody has had a dog that all of a sudden bites somebody. That’s a domesticated animal that’s unpredictable.

“Yeah, they’re cute, fuzzy and cuddly when they’re little, but it’s a wild animal. You may think that specific animal wouldn’t hurt anybody, but you can’t know that for a fact.”

Sykes said his work at the Auburn University white-tailed deer research facility gave him specific insight into the unpredictability of the white-tailed deer.

“I worked at Auburn’s deer research facility for a year-and-a-half when I was in school,” he said. “I was there three or four or times a week with those deer. Every once in a while, one would just go berserk. You never know what’s going to happen with a wild animal, and when you get complacent around it, that’s when somebody can get hurt. Even if the animal doesn’t intend to do you bodily harm, something could startle it – a horn going off, a car door slamming, a dog barking. Its flight instinct could hurt somebody unintentionally.”

As J.R. Dunsmore of Marshall County found out recently, deer behavior can change drastically. The captive buck he had held illegally in a pen went from licking his arm to trying to kill him in a three-week span. Dunsmore lost the sight in his right eye and suffered serious injuries from the attack (go to www.outdooralabama.com/Dunsmore13 to see the entire Dunsmore story).

“During breeding season, the bucks get a shot of testosterone, and everything becomes an enemy,” Sykes said. “In summer and early fall, the bucks are bachelored up and together. All the boys are hanging out, and everybody is friendly, and everybody is happy. When the weather gets cold, that testosterone increases as breeding season is coming in. Then nobody is a buddy. Everybody fights.

“If they’re used to a human as their buddy during the summer, they don’t care that you were their best friend then. It’s ‘all about me’ when rutting season comes about. They defend their territory and assert their dominance. Period.”

Sykes said that in the blink of an eye that so-called pet can revert to its innate nature, which also provides the animal with the tools to survive.

“They can turn on you and you never see it coming,” he said. “And it’s not just bucks that do it. I’m tired of hearing that if it doesn’t have antlers, it can’t hurt you. One of the worst beatings I ever took was from a 40-pound doe fawn in the research facility. When you’re handling wild animals you can get hurt. Does will stand up on their hind legs and flail at your with their front hooves. Not only can they cut you, they pack a pretty good punch.”

The two does in the recent incident were brought to Dauphin Island by an island resident. The deer roamed the island and became habituated to humans. When the deer were reported to WFF officials in Montgomery, the animals were confiscated. Transporting live wild animals in Alabama is against the law.

“It is a public safety issue,” Sykes said. “As important as that, it’s an illegal activity. This was a no-win situation for Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries. Somebody created a problem that we had to act on. You either remove the animals and you’re looked at as being cruel and heartless, or you don’t do anything and turn a blind eye to the law. As soon as someone or somebody’s pet had been injured, they would have blamed us for not enforcing the law.

“Legally, we did what was right.”

Kevin Dodd, WFF Chief of the Enforcement Section, said there is a consensus among conservation and animal rights groups that wild animals should never become “pets.” He said groups like ASPCA (American Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Animals), Humane Society of the U.S., PAWS (Performing Animal Welfare Society) and the National Wildlife Rehabilitators Association give a list of reasons against making pets of wild animals.

“All of these groups say the same thing,” Dodd said. “Animals can transmit diseases. It’s unfair the animal. It’s a risk to public safety and on and on. We’re all on the same page. If you can get all these diverse groups to recommend against having wild animals as pets, it must be the right thing to do.

“The thing about the deer on Dauphin Island is they had lost all flight tendencies. That’s where the public safety issue comes in. It’s the same with alligators when you feed them. They don’t avoid humans like they normally do. With deer, at some point, they’re likely to raise up and paw somebody with their hooves. They can be lethal with those hooves.”

Dodd said an investigation into the deer on Dauphin Island prompted the action taken by WFF officers.

“Especially with Dauphin Island being a tourist destination, when it was brought to our attention that the deer were licking the faces of babies and toddlers were feeding them, we were not willing to assume the liability that tomorrow, six months or a year from now, that the deer might hurt somebody,” Dodd said. “We felt removal from the island was the best option. We will do that again if this situation comes up in the future.

“It’s a public safety issue. It was brought to our attention by some concerned Dauphin Island residents. With the evidence we had, we deemed it a public safety issue and acted accordingly.”

Good intentions aside, Dodd wants to emphasize that when someone “rescues” a deer for whatever reason that it usually is a death sentence for that animal.

“If people would just call us if they find a deer on the side of the road or whatever, we will deal with it,” Dodd said. “It may not be what they want to hear, but it’s the right thing to do. People don’t realize that we have very few options when it comes to captive or so-called pet deer. Most of the time our only option is the animal or animals must be euthanized.”

Sykes said only those entities that are licensed as zoos, game breeders or wildlife rehabilitators can legally keep wild animals in captivity. The wildlife rehabilitators also must follow specific protocols when rehabilitated animals are released back into the wild.

Sykes said that despite the backlash, WFF officials had no choice but to remove the animals from Dauphin Island.

“The biggest thing is that we did our job, no matter how unpopular it was,” Sykes said. “Doing the right thing is not always the popular thing to do. But taking a wild animal and reducing it to a pet was the wrong thing to do, and we had to do our job.

“To quote (Russian writer Leo) Tolstoy, ‘Wrong does not cease to be wrong because the majority share in it.’”

PHOTO: (By David Rainer) Not only do captive or “pet” antlered bucks pose a threat to humans, does and fawns can cause injuries with flailing hooves and impact in a flight situation.

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