ST. PAUL -- During the spring when people begin to spend more time outdoors, they occasionally come across baby animals. White-tailed deer fawns, bear cubs, and other baby animals are cute and appealing. But what should people do if they find an animal curled up in the woods or a field all by itself? Has it been abandoned?
Almost certainly not, according to the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources.
A doe's method of rearing her offspring is nothing like a human's, especially for the first few weeks. Within hours of its birth, the fawn is led to a secluded spot and the doe lets it nurse. With a full stomach, the fawn is content to lie down and rest. If the doe has twins, it will hide the second fawn up to 200 feet away. Then the doe leaves to feed and rest herself, out of sight but within earshot.
In four or five hours, she will return to feed her young and take them to a new hiding place. They follow this pattern for about two to three weeks, and only then, when the fawns are strong enough to outrun predators, do the young travel much with their mother.
Deer have evolved a number of special adaptations that make this approach to fawn-rearing successful. Fawns have almost no odor, so predators cannot smell them. Their white-spotted coats provide excellent camouflage when they are lying on the forest floor. For the first week of life, frightened fawns instinctively freeze, making full use of their protective coloration. Older fawns remain motionless until they think they have been discovered, and then jump and bound away. A deer's primary protection from predators is its great speed. Newborn fawns are not fast enough to outdistance predators, so they must depend on their ability to hide for protection.
Although these adaptations work well against predators, they don't work very well with people. For the first few weeks, a fawn's curiosity may entice it to approach a person who comes upon the fawn. The doe's absence can lead people to believe that the fawn has been abandoned.
So what's the right way to handle an encounter with a fawn? Never try to catch it. If it's hiding, admire it for a moment and then quietly walk away.
Enjoy the memory, but don't describe the location to others. If the fawn tries to follow, gently push on its shoulders until it lies down, and then walk away. That's what its mother does when she doesn't want the fawn to follow.
The same is true for other wildlife such as rabbits and snowshoe hares. They will likely never join their mother except to nurse. If young are found, it is far better to leave them alone. You can get so close to them simply because their best survival strategy is to remain hidden.
In the case of birds, the young of most species leave the nest (fledge) before they can fly. They are fed by their parents either on the ground or from low bushes that they can flutter or climb into. Unless it is apparent that they have blown from the nest they should be left alone. If they are blown from the nest, the best strategy is to return them to the nest if it can be found and is still intact.
And, what should people do if they find an injured animal? Again, it is best to leave it be. The DNR does not accept injured animals. The DNR will, however, make arrangements for care of injured, threatened or endangered species.
Removing deer or other native animals from the wild and raising and keeping them in captivity is against the law. The unnatural conditions of life in captivity can lead to malnutrition, injury and stress, even at the hands of a well-meaning captor. Wild animals that become accustomed to humans can pose a threat to themselves and to people. People should leave the baby animals where they found them to give them the best chance for survival.