State wildlife managers are evaluating the behavior of 11 young deer at a licensed wildlife rehabilitation center in Thurston County, where they euthanized three fawns and an elk calf last week after finding those animals had become habituated to humans.
An initial investigation found that the operators of the For Heaven’s Sake Animal Rescue and Rehabilitation in Rochester had violated the terms of their state permit and have been prohibited from caring for deer, elk, or other large animals in the future.
The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) is now trying to determine whether the remaining deer at the facility also have become too tame to release into the wild and – if so – whether new homes can be found for them.
Eric Gardner, head of the WDFW Wildlife Program, said the department has tentatively placed up to six female fawns in a longstanding nutritional study at Washington State University, but that no other qualified facilities have agreed to adopt the remaining animals since the problem was discovered in late September.
“This is a tough situation for everyone involved,” he said. “The department licenses wildlife rehabilitators to prepare sick, injured and orphaned animals for release back into the wild, but those animals have virtually no chance of surviving if they become habituated to humans.”
Gardner said habituated wildlife can also pose a threat to public safety, citing the example of a habituated buck deer that gored two people during a marathon run in Davenport, Wash., last month.
State regulations and national wildlife rehabilitation standards direct wildlife managers to euthanize habituated animals rather than release them into the wild, he said.
Gardner said the situation at the Rochester facility could have been avoided if the rehabilitators had limited human contact with the animals, weaned them sooner, and released them into the wild in accordance with state guidelines.
He said a WDFW wildlife rehabilitation specialist saw no evidence of habituation during a routine visit in early August. But after receiving a tip from the public, the specialist returned unannounced in late September with a WDFW wildlife veterinarian and found significant problems with human habituation.
“As soon as the two staff members entered the enclosure the fawns came right up to them and started nuzzling them for food,” Gardner said. “The elk calf actually head-butted one of them in the hope of being fed.”
Wildlife managers euthanized the elk and three fawns that demonstrated they had lost their fear of humans by approaching them during a third visit by WDFW staff Nov. 9.
WDFW records show that Claudia and David Supensky have been licensed to operate the For Heaven’s Sake Animal Rescue and Rehabilitation since 2010, with no previous violations of state regulations.
Gardner described the Supenskys as caring people who work hard on behalf of the animals placed in their care. This is the first time the they have been found to violate the rules against habituating wildlife at their facility, he said.
There are 31 licensed wildlife rehabilitation facilities in Washington, 25 of which are located west of the Cascade Range. Most are registered non-profit organizations and all rely primarily on donations and grants to cover their operating expenses.
Gardner said many of the deer and other animals that wind up in rehabilitation facilities are removed from the wild by people who mistakenly believe they have been abandoned by their parents.
“Wildlife rehabilitators provide a great service to our state by caring for sick, injured, and orphaned wildlife,” Gardner said. “People do this work because they care about Washington’s native wildlife.”
On average, each facility is visited annually by WDFW personnel, Gardner said. Any indication of problems will prompt more frequent visits and inspections.
Additional information about wildlife rehabilitation in Washington is available at http://wdfw.wa.gov/conservation/health/rehabilitation/.