In October 2019, the Facebook page “Wild Souls Wildlife Rescue and Rehab” shared a following meme advising people to leave fawns with straight ears alone, because “curled ears” are indicative that a young deer has been abandoned by its family:
The page added:
Let’s say it together.. Ears are curled fawn alone in the world 💕❤️Otherwise fawn most likely is waiting for mom to come back in the exact spot she was told to.
The text on the meme was originally shared by the page “Wild Heart Ranch” in May 2013:
"Ears are straight, fawn is great. Ears are curled, fawn alone in the world." Look at the ears before picking up a fawn. It takes a few days of not eating for the ears to curl. Here’s a photo of both scenarios. from aww
Presented advice in rhyming form involved both suggested restraint (leaving some fawns alone if their ears were “straight,”) as well as a proactive response (“rescuing” a fawn with “curled ears.”) In the image, the fawn at the upper left had “normal” ears, and the one on the bottom right’s ears were curled back.
Iterations of the meme and its catchy rhyming advice were widespread across social media platforms, making it relatively safe to assume that thousands of people were exposed to advice about deciding whether or not to interfere with a seemingly abandoned juvenile deer based on the appearance of its ears.
Reporting on the subject of wildlife rescue and “helpful” interventions on the part of humans when it comes to young animals is fairly commonplace. In May 2019, the Dallas News published an item with a headline summarizing many wildlife rescuers’ positions on spontaneous rescues: “Leave young wildlife alone: Trying to help young animals in the wild can do more harm than good.”
Citing “wildlife biologists, game wardens and licensed wildlife rehabilitators all over” Texas, the article noted that seemingly beneficial actions undertaken by well-meaning humans “could be a death sentence for a white-tailed deer fawn, bluejay fledgling, baby fox or rabbit,” including an anecdote illustrating the risks of untrained wildlife rescuers:
Amy Sethman of Burnet knows the drill all too well. Several years ago, Sethman’s ex-husband found a days-old fawn bedded down in a field. Thinking the fawn had been abandoned by its mother, he scooped it up [and] brought it home.
The couple quickly found out caring for a young deer isn’t as easy as it might seem. They also learned it is illegal to possess one without the proper permit.
Too much time had passed to take the fawn back where it was found, so they started making phone calls to locate a licensed wildlife rehabilitator to care for it. Sethman said the rehabilitator wasn’t happy when she learned how they wound up with the baby deer.
“She was pretty mad about it when we told her what happened,” Sethman said. “She scolded us pretty good. It was a lesson learned. The fawn should have been left alone.”
Noting that some fawns do simply get sick and die, the article explained that typical fawn behavior is often mistaken for distress, and that they should be left alone:
Fawns will often curl up in the grass or beneath the shade of a bush. The animals are born scent-free with tannish coats and around 300 white spots to help them go undetected by predators. They are genetically programmed to remain motionless with their head low and ears flat while in the hiding mode.
It is during these away times that humans usually encounter fawns and pick them up. Sadly, the well-meaning gesture often spoils any chance of the youngster being reunited with its mother. It also places the now orphaned fawn in a situation where it is totally dependent on humans for survival … Those that do live never benefit from the learned behaviors their mother would have taught them. This reduces the animal’s chance of survival in the event it is released back into the wild at an older age.
“People need to understand these fawns aren’t abandoned,” [wildlife expert Alan] Cain said. “They are more likely to do harm to the fawn by picking it up and trying to take it to somebody. The chances of it surviving are a lot slimmer than if they just leave it where they found it.”
The article advised that observing from a distance is the best course of action for humans concerned about fawns — particularly during the spring. In 2014, Crystal Bridges Trails and Grounds made similar observations about humans’ desire to intervene and “save” distressed deer:
Being used to a more attached, “helicopter” style of parenting, we humans will sometimes worry if we find a fawn alone in the woods. We assume the mother has abandoned the fawn or been killed, leaving the poor baby orphaned. Our instinct may be to gather it up and “rescue” it.
We encourage you to stop and observe before doing anything of that sort. It is more than likely that the mother deer is nearby and will come back in the evening to feed and care for her fawn. You serve the fawn best by leaving it undisturbed in place. If you are concerned, you may come back in the evening to feed and care for her fawn. You serve the fawn best by leaving it undisturbed in place. If you are concerned, you may come back in the evening and check to see if the fawn is still alone. Chances are, the mother will have come for it by then. Many healthy fawns are “kidnapped” every year by well-meaning humans who don’t understand deer habits.
That page cited a since-archived page of advice from Maryland’s Department of Natural Resources, “Before ‘Rescuing’ That White-tailed Fawn … Think Twice!” The Department indicates that a curled up fawn is “almost certainly” not abandoned, advising that untrained people refrain from interfering with deer in the wild:
What should a person do when they encounter a young fawn hiding on the ground? Never try to catch it. If the fawn is lying down, enjoy the moment and then quietly walk away. Do not describe the location to others. If the fawn attempts to follow you, gently push on its shoulders until it lies down and then slowly walk away. The doe would do the same thing when she wants the fawn to stay put.
Removing deer or other native wild animals from the wild, raising them and keeping them in captivity without the approval of the Maryland Department of Natural Resources is against the law. The unnatural conditions of life in captivity can lead to malnutrition, injury and stress at the hands of a well-meaning captor. Wild animals that become accustomed to humans can pose a threat to themselves and to people. Remember, if you observe a fawn, enjoy the moment, but do not pick it up.
Even wildlife rehabilitators who referenced the “curled ears” or “bent ears” signifier largely advised people to leave deer alone and emphasized:
Unless [you] know the mother is dead, leave a fawn alone. Does are sensitive to human smells … do not touch the fawns!
Time and again, wildlife experts warn about the greater risk of creating a “wildlife abduction” when intending a “wildlife rescue.” New Jersey’s Wild Baby Rescue Center provides several ways to tell a fawn is “in distress,” one of which involves bent or curled ears:
- The baby has been crying for an hour or more. (a “maaaappp” sound)
- The baby is injured or has been attacked.
- The baby is lying stretched out and is cold to the touch.
- The baby walks directly up to pets or humans.
- The edges of the ears are curled (dehydrated).
- The baby is in a dangerous place, (lying in water, wandering in the road, parking Lot etc.
- The doe is dead.
- There are flies around the fawn.
Directly thereafter, the rescue recommends anyone who sees a fawn in apparent distress contact a licensed wildlife rehabilitator, as a professional would will be able to recognize whether or not the animal is actually in distress. Further steps are given for situations where it is necessary “to move an injured/abandoned animal,” but the first point to note is that the advice given is to call an expert and not touch the animal yourself, if at all possible.
The Wildlife Center of Virginia cites a number of “fawn-nappings” each year carried out by well-meaning people, and provides a chart of advice:
Second Chance Wildlife Center published a detailed information sheet [PDF] for people concerned about an apparently wounded or abandoned fawn. Once again, they offer “some simple questions you can ask yourself to determine if the fawn needs a rehabilitator’s assistance,” and add that it is best to call a wildlife expert instead of “showing up at their door with a fawn in your arms.” The Humane Society similarly advises concerned people to call an expert and to not handle the fawn.
Not to put too fine a point on it, the National Wildlife Federation (NWF) wrote in 2015:
Every springtime, the National Wildlife Federation gets numerous emails and phone calls from concerned people asking the following question:
“I found an abandoned fawn! Where can I take it?”
The answer is almost always the same:
The fawn isn’t abandoned and you should leave it right where it is.
A 2017 Facebook post about the intersection of good intentions and bad outcomes after people tried to “rescue” a fawn illustrated why wildlife experts are so vociferously opposed to humans interfering with seemingly abandoned fawns:
Hard facts about life and death in fawn. I know I’ve posted this over and over but I know there are always more people who don’t know. This little fawn was brought to us today after the good Samaritans had it for three days. They had fed it goat milk out of one of the tiny little pet bottles you can get at Petco or PetSmart (the type for kittens, etc.). Needless to say he was dehydrated, [weak], and constantly twitching. With two rehabilitators and a veterinarian here, we could not save him. We went to work on him immediately, gave fluids, warmed him, stimulated him, and he even drank a little DEER milk. He died within 15 minute of getting here. I spoke with the people who said they called a lot of places over the weekend and couldn’t get help. They did not call us. Folks, if you google “wildlife rehab or rescue”, you will find us.
In that unfortunate real-life instance, well-intentioned people “rescued” and attempted to nurse a fawn “back to health” for three days. When wildlife rehabilitators were finally called, the fawn died within 15 minutes of its arrival to their center. That rescue noted that in other cases, people sought advice and the fawns were reunited with their mothers:
I do realize that people mean well but we see this so often that it is very sad. Share. Spread the message around that fawn are not abandoned by their mothers. The mother goes away to keep from drawing attention to the fawn but they will return. LEAVE THEM ALONE and for goodness sakes, if you don’t, call a rehabilitator immediately. There is no way to NOT find a rehabilitator if you really try. Vet’s offices know about us, Fish & Wildlife officers know about us, the Police Dept. knows about us, the Sheriff’s office knows about us. Animal Services knows. Google. Thank you. I’ve already spoken with two different individuals who took fawn but called. I was able to tell them to take the fawn back where they found them and leave them for their mothers (both cases happen to be on their property and they could watch from a distance). In both cases, mother came back like I said she would.
In July 2017, Gila Wildlife Rescue reiterated that advice and described similar experiences, imploring Facebook users to share a post about the risks inherent in untrained rescuing of fawns:
PLEASE DO NOT pick up any baby deer unless the mother is dead, WITHOUT CONTACTING US FIRST! Each year fawns in our area are picked up by well-meaning people who have basically stolen them from their mothers and written their death sentence … If a deer is picked up and fed milk that is meant for humans, its chance of survival is very, very slim. It causes a severe diarrhea that can cause them to die within hours. We only raise fawns that their mother has died and use a special formula, and even then, their survival isn’t guaranteed. Most of the problem is the stress that is caused by well meaning people picking them up, called capture myopathy, so, DO NOT TOUCH!!! If you call us after you have picked up a fawn, we will tell you to put it right back where you picked it up from because you have then stolen it from its mother. Please act responsibly and do what is best for the deer and NOT what makes YOU feel good. Keep human interference out of the picture. It will be better for the fawn.
Unfortunately, a catchy “ears are straight, fawn is great, ears are curled, fawn alone in the world” meme has traveled far and wide on the internet, tacitly encouraging well-meaning humans to “rescue” baby deer if they suspect the fawn’s ears signal malnutrition. The meme is not wrong, in that curled ears are one sign a fawn is malnourished and therefore in distress, but wildlife rescues and experts are unanimous and emphatic in their insistence that those without wildlife-specific training do not touch fawns they believe to be in distress. Whether or not a fawn’s ears are “curled” or “bent,” experts and rescuers advise calling rehabilitators or other animal services and never, ever touching a fawn in the wild.
Each year, rescues lament the baby deer inadvertently killed by well-meaning people who “rescue them to death.”