Kenwood resident Marjorie Davis is the only person licensed in Sonoma County to care for injured fawns, preparing them to be released back into the wild. Except for the extremely young or ill animals, she handles the wild creatures as little as possible.c1999 by Robbi Pengelly/ Index-Tribune
Staying on the Wild Side
By Patricia Henley
Marjorie McKenzie Davis never coos to the orphaned babies she raises, doesn't sing lullabies or babble baby-talk, and never gazes lovingly into their big, beautiful eyes. Instead, she keeps silent while she feeds and cares for them, and leaves them to their own devices as much as possible.
That's because Davis hopes her young charges turn into completely wild adults.
"They have to retain their fear of humans," Davis explains. The human voice is not something they are going to hear in the wild. She doesn't want it to sound at all familiar, or be associated with food and comfort.
For the past 15 years, Davis, 78, has been the heart, soul and body of Kenwood's Wildlife Fawn Rescue. She bottle-feeds the fawns until they are weaned, teaches them to eat the berries and leaves they'll find in the wild, and then - with the landowners' consent - releases them in small groups on large parcels of private property, far from roads and highways.
"There's a lot of big acreage in Sonoma County, and most people are more than happy to let me release on their property," Davis said.
It's illegal to capture and contain a wild animal, and Davis is the only person in Sonoma County licensed to take care of fawns. She answers every call for help that comes to her, day or night.
"I get from 90 to 100 fawns a year," Davis explained. "It takes all my time and all my energy. When I'm doing fawns, that's all I do."
"Fawn season" runs anywhere from mid-March to mid-September. Davis gets called when the animals are hit by cars, attacked by dogs, caught in wire fences or orphaned.
Sometimes it's quite clear the mother is dead, but far more often cute little fawns are picked up by well-meaning humans who don't realize that even if they can't see the mother doe, that doesn't mean she isn't watching.
"It's just a mistake to touch any kind of wildlife, if they're out there in the wild," Davis said. "...We ask people not to touch the fawns, but call us instead."
A deer often leaves her baby in a sheltered bed while she goes out to forage. She will hide if people come near, and return to her fawn when they are gone, Davis said. Those who find an "abandoned" fawn should leave it alone unless it is obviously hurt and bleeding, on its side kicking and crying, or clearly extremely ill.
A healthy-seeming fawn found on a remote stretch of highway should be put off the roadway about 20 feet. If a fawn is sitting quietly upright, the only help it needs is to have the humans leave so the animal's mother has an opportunity to come get it.
Teaching people to respect wildlife is an important part of Davis' work. To that end, last fall she published a book, Leap To Freedom, containing just a few of her hundreds of experiences over the years. There are tales of success, but also of heartbreak. Fawn rescue work isn't for those who can't deal with death.
"You never get over losing them, but you do accept it," Davis said. "You have to, or you can't do this job. …It would be too stressful. You have to realize you're going to lose some."
Even in a good release year, the success rate is under 50 percent, Davis said. Last year it was a heart-breaking 35 percent. Survival rates are lowest in the fall, when young deer are venturing unsteadily into the world, and the calls to Wildlife Fawn Rescue usually involve injured or dying animals.
It's not that Davis doesn't do everything possible to keep an animal alive. Several veterinarians throughout Sonoma County voluntarily provide any needed medical support, but some fawns just don't make it.
However, they have a far better chance of survival with Davis than with people who don't know what a young deer needs.
"People feed them cow's milk and that's a death sentence for them," Davis said. "Cow's milk is only one-third as rich as doe's milk."
A national laboratory has analyzed doe milk, and produced a powdered substitute. The doe milk formula can only be bought by those licensed to care for these wild animals.
Davis and her husband live on a semi-remote property above Kenwood. Their place is dotted with specially-designed pens. Wooden stands hold formula bottles through the fences, so the nursing fawns can feed without help from Davis.
New arrivals are kept in isolation for a few days, to be sure they carry no diseases, and then put with fawns of their same age, so they can bond.
Once the fawns are ready for food, Davis starts tossing leaves and berries into their pens, to let them "forage" for themselves, rather than learning to accept handouts from people.
When she first started, Davis fed the deer everything green she found growing locally, and watched what they ate. That's how she learned they love poison oak, manzanita, toyon bushes, different types of weeds, some mushrooms and most brush.
"They don't like bay leaves or anything with a sharp smell, like sage," Davis said. Wild cherry plums, which grow all over Sonoma County, are also favorites. She carefully avoids giving the fawns a taste of anything that could get the deer in trouble after being released, such as grape leaves or roses.
The fawns are kept about four months, until they are fully weaned, and their spots are gone. Davis has two satellite" sites now, in Cloverdale and Bennett Valley, where her older charges stay in large enclosures until ready to be let go into the wild. She'd like to find more satellite sites.
Deer are social animals, and need to be in a herd or family group. Davis always releases several young deer together, as ready-made families. An animal sent off on its own would not survive, and could be seriously injured or killed when trying to join a wild herd.
Except for rare occasions, her rescue operation isn't open to the public, and she doesn't use volunteers to help care for the fawns. Seeing and interacting with just a few people gives the animals a better chance at staying wild. Plus, being put on "exhibit" is stressful for these wild animals.
Instead, Davis has a collection of taxidermied animals representing nine different species, and will give free presentations at schools, with a message of respect for and understanding of wildlife.
"The kids love it," Davis said. "They can get up close and see the spots, and so on."
When it's not fawn season, Davis cares for and releases injured western gray squirrels. When she started 15 years ago, she handled any type of injured animal, but decided it was better to specialize than to scatter her energies on a lot of different species.
Wildlife Fawn Rescue is a nonprofit organization, dependent on donations. Supporters have supplied everything from cash to extra walnuts for a squirrel brought in with a broken leg after the nut harvest.
"The people in the Valley have been so good to me. ... When I needed something, it's always there," Davis said.
Davis is determined to get, the word out that it never works when humans interfere, or try to domesticate these beautiful creatures.
"That's part of their downfall, their beauty," Davis said. "Most people wouldn't want them as pets if they looked like snakes."