White tail deer, such as those found in abundance across all of Michigan, rut in the fall and winter which leads to thousands of cute little baby deer being born from late April to about mid-July of the following year. When born, these fawns will have a more reddish coat than their parents will, and are covered with hundreds of small white spots. These spots help the fawn blend in with the myriad of blooming wildflowers and weeds in the spring and summertime when it is born.
As a bonus protection from good ole Mother Nature, fawns have no sent which keeps predators from smelling them. As such, the mothers of these nursing fawns try to stay away from their young as much as possible to not rub off their own scent. By October, the young fawns normally lose their spots and at that time are foraging rather than nursing, well on their way to adulthood.
With this in mind, if you see a spotted fawn in spring and summer, odds are it will not be with its mother right beside it. Mom is most likely hidden in a thicket nearby while the kids explore the world. Alternatively, mama doe may have left junior behind so she could go get some grub, as she is still eating for two.
One of the best signs to see if a fawn is orphaned and in distressed is if it is dehydrated. A dehydrated baby deer is a deer that is unable to nurse for some reason. Perhaps mom is dead, or perhaps she is sick and not producing milk. Whatever the case, these dehydrated fawns can be readily identified by the position of their ears. A dehydrated fawn will have their wide ears curled back at the tips, or, in later stages, will be collapsed and non-responsive to stimulus.
If a fawn has nice, strait ears and is walking around, it’s most likely not an orphan. Leave it be. Mom will be very alert to human smells on her baby, and may not want anything to do with it if you try to play hug-the-fawn. Worse, if you lead the fawn away, the doe’s milk will begin to dry within as little as 24-hours.
As the old timers say, “Ears are straight, fawn is great. Ears are curled; it’s alone in the world.”
What to do if you find one?
So, you have an orphaned deer on your hands. Your baby is sick, its ears are curled, and it is just plain old pathetic. You have observed the fawn for hours and it’s neither moved away or had a mother come to tend to it. As confirmation, you may have even found a nursing doe killed by a car a few blocks away. What do you do now?
The best and most correct answer is to find a local wildlife rehabilitation group that can take the animal. While they don’t advertise much due to lack of funds, these little known wildlife heroes are state and federal licensed wildlife rehabilitators, caregivers, or veterinarians located across the state. A good resource to find one locally is DNR’s list of Licensed Rehabilitators, which contains the names and contact information for nearly a hundred such groups and individuals across the state. If you come up short, give your local conservation office a call as soon as possible.
Until the animal can be picked up or taken to a rehabber, keep it warm and dry and do not try to feed it any food other than plain water.
Can you keep it as a pet?
The simple answer is no. Now re-read that sentence if you have questions. In Michigan, it is illegal to keep a deer as a pet if it’s taken from the wild. If you are busted with one, you are facing at a minimum of a $1,000 Fine (plus fees) and/or as much as 6 months in jail. It is also illegal to import whitetail deer into the state. This is for the animal’s own good.
There are of course exceptions to the rule. In 2013 a family that found a fawn was allowed to keep it after applying for a $700 Exhibition Class Permit for the animal, but don’t count on lightning striking twice as far as that’s concerned.
Wild animals taken in as pets are no longer wild yet are never really pets. Once the steps down that road are taken, the animal is in a strange Catch-22 situation. It can never be released into the wild because it’s become so dependent on humans that it can never learn to properly take care of itself. Yet, it cannot be properly vaccinated and cared for enough to be anything other than an easy target for passing poachers.
In the end, the best medicine for dealing with fawns is to let nature be, and only get involved if you are sure the animal is in distress—then have the rehabber on the phone as you do.