Eleven rescued deer previously slated for euthanization by the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife are now standing on the brink of wild release.
That twist in the ongoing saga at For Heaven’s Sake Animal Rescue and Rehabilitation in Rochester was revealed to The Chronicle by WDFW Wildlife Manager Brian Calkins last week.
“We’ve made the decision to allow them to release all of the deer, and further, we are going to let them do that in the manner that that they have done in the past,” Calkins said.
That development came 10 days after Calkins took part in the final WDFW observation of the herd of orphaned deer that the WDFW had previously deemed to be “too friendly” for wild release. During the most recent onsite inspection conducted by Calkins and WDFW Conflict Specialist Matt Blankenship, Calkins said nine of the deer exhibited wild traits and caution around humans. However, he also reported that he was able to approach two young does and repeatedly touch them on the head.
While the WDFW easily decided that the nine deer that fled their advances would be approved for wild release, the fate of the two does was the subject of extensive internal discussions.
The decision to allow all 11 remaining deer to be returned to the wild comes nearly eight months after concerns were first raised about the instincts of the young ungulates at For Heaven’s Sake. At that time, the rescue center had 15 fawns and an elk calf under their care.
After several months of discussion and an inspection of the animals, WDFW decided to euthanize all 15 fawns and the elk calf, arguing that the animals had become habituated to humans and would become easy prey in the wild, or could wind up causing injury to humans. When WDFW staff showed up at For Heaven’s Sake in November to round up the animals for euthanization, they were able to coax four of the youngest deer and the elk calf that was still being bottle fed into an enclosed space where they were sedated. The animals were then loaded into a trailer and later euthanized.
However, the remaining 11 deer refused to approach WDFW staff and fled into nearby woods to evade capture. Still, those 11 deer remained targeted for euthanasia by the WDFW. It wasn’t until mounting public outcry came to a head at a Fish and Wildlife Commission meeting at the state capital in December that the WDFW began to relent.
One week after the meeting in Olympia, the WDFW came to an agreement with For Heaven’s Sake that allowed the deer to remain under the care of the rescue center until March 16. The agreement allowed for three inspections by WDFW between mid-December and the middle of March to determine their suitability for wild release.
On Monday, Calkins said the WDFW has dropped its requirement that the deer be sedated and ear-tagged prior to their release, so WDFW could keep tabs on the deer. Instead, the operators of For Heaven’s Sake, Claudia and David Supensky, will be allowed to facilitate the release as they have in the past.
“When (Calkins) came here on Friday, he said, ‘We’ve had some changes in the plan.’ And man, it scared me at first,” said Claudia Supensky. “What they’ve decided is that they are going to let us try to round them up in our trailer and then move them, just like we always have.”
Suspensky said she is grateful for the opportunity to release them as she always has. She plans to bait the travel trailer with apples and other sweet fodder to entice the deer, as instructed by the WDFW.
“They haven’t had apples in a very long time because the state said not to do that, so they are just going to love that and I think we are going to be able to get them in the trailer,” Supensky said.
She said the plan is to release them all in the same area so that they can remain a herd.
“It’s clear that at this point in time, based on two of our evaluation visits, that most of the deer, nine, seem to be acting pretty wild,” Calkins said. “There are two that humans could physically touch during two of our evaluations. That said, there is also a herd mentality amongst this group of animals. They tend to follow each other when they take off and we are hopeful those two animals will continue to run with the others.”
He said the WDFW believes any risks will be mitigated by the remote location where they will be released, as well as the animals’ inclination to stick with the herd.
“It may sound kind of harmless that a couple of these deer came up to us and we were able to touch them and what not, but if that behavior is reinforced in wild animals — and that’s what these are is wild animals — it can result in damage to landscapes and even injuries to humans,” Calkins said.
While a happy ending seems to be in store for the 11 surviving deer at For Heaven’s Sake, Calkins called the killing of the first five animals justified. The episode will likely serve as a cautionary tale for wildlife rescuers and WDFW personnel alike for years to come.
“I think ... we’ve learned a lot from this experience,” Calkins said. “I don’t think we’ve ever had something quite like this happen before.”