Cruel Mother
By Harry Morse
Southest Region Conservation Educator
Idaho Fish and Game
Mother Nature seems cruel. Sometimes young deer have what we think they need but they still die. The mystery is why and how these deaths occur. And what is to blame.

Nash Carr of Pocatello called the Fish and Game office and asked for someone to come out to look at a fawn that was killed and half eaten behind his house. His wife was concerned that a mountain lion lurked behind the house.

Carr led me to a dead fawn not 75 feet behind his house. It was half eaten but oddly the snow showed few signs of struggle. The 40-degree day melted the snow, making tracks surrounding the kill unreadable. Tuffs of hair lay by the carcass. Birds picked the rib bones clean on one side and the stomach was half eaten.

"We have deer that cross our property all the time. I started to feed them hay since the winter was so bad," Carr said. "Then, I called your office and found out there was a feeding site near me with deer pellets for deer. I didn't know a straight diet of hay could kill deer."

I picked up the remains of the fawn and took it back to the office for a necropsy. A necropsy is "half an autopsy," according to senior wildlife researcher Mark Hurley. Necropsies are valuable in establishing the cause of death.

What Killed the Fawn?

"Mark, could you help me find out what killed this fawn?" I asked. "You don't mind if I video you doing it, do you? I want to use it on our cable TV show, `Your Fish and Game Outdoors'."

Asking anyone to do an hour of cutting on a dead deer outdoors in 10-degree weather at 4:50 p.m. on Valentine's Day is pushing it, especially when Hurley had a two-hour drive ahead of him to meet his wife for dinner.

Gore is not for everyone. As one of my friends said, "The most I want to see is hamburger in a package. Not how it got there."

Hurley skinned one-half of the fawn at a time looking for bruises, bite marks or broken bones. Around the head he moved the neck to see if it was dislocated or broken. He checked the fat levels and broke the back left femur bone to check the condition of the bone marrow. He paid special attention to punctures around the neck.

"This fawn is in very poor body condition and probably would not be alive a week from now" said Hurley. "Femur fat is one of the last reserves used to survive. This fawn's marrow is gelatinous and red. There is absolutely zero fat left in it."

Poor creature — two years of drought doomed it at birth. Its mom probably was not in great shape, giving birth to a small, late fawn. Drought stressed vegetation didn't allow the young fawn enough nourishment to grow big and strong to survive the winter. Now it was half-eaten.

Bite Marks

"There are opposing bite marks just below the neck joint. But they did not break the skin. There is little pre-mortem bruising. The placement and distance apart indicate a canid (a dog)," said Hurley. "Was there any indication of a fight at the site?"

Little evidence of a fight, I said. A few bird droppings, some hair scattered around but nothing else, no real sign of a struggle.

"From what I am seeing, it was probably a dog that bit the deer while it was too weak to stand. But this fawn was dead on its feet." Hurley said. "I doubt if it had the energy to struggle. The bite marks didn't break the skin, and there is little bruising. Judging by the body condition, the fawn was the walking dead."

Making The Big Error

I almost made the big error of telling Mr. Carr that a coyote or dog killed the fawn. In reality, it was malnutrition. The dog delivered the fatal blow but drought doomed the fawn.

"I don't get it, Mark. There was a feed station nearby and the south-facing hillside was snow free. What happened?" I asked.

"Not all fawns make it, even during the best of years. And we have to be very careful before we say a mountain lion or coyote was the cause of death. As you can see, even though an animal is half eaten, a predator may just be cleaning up after Mother Nature."

It is hard to accept death as part of nature. We intervene on natural selection all the time. We have wonderful medical care for premature babies. We care for our elderly. Our pets and livestock benefit from exceptional veterinary care.

Maybe that is why it is so hard to see the effects of drought and winter weather on a dead fawn.

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