By MIKE CORN
Wildlife rehabilitator Carrie Newell had been trying for nearly a year to get an answer to a prickly question:
What should wildlife rehabilitators do with with orphaned or injured deer, given the presence of chronic wasting disease -- an always-fatal, brain-wasting disease -- in northwest Kansas?
She finally got her answer, but she's less than happy with the way it came about, through the death of one fawn that was sent to the Hutchinson Zoo and another that died as she pushed hard to finally get an answer.
The Kansas Department of Wildlife and Parks is asking wildlife rehabilitators to voluntarily stop accepting fawns out of fear that it might hasten the spread of CWD.
"It's a sensitive issue," KDWP wildlife disease coordinator Shane Hesting admits.
He wasn't aware that Newell had been trying for a year to get an answer to the question that Hesting has had on his list of items to do.
The Hutchinson deer is pivotal in KDWP's decision to ask rehabilitators to stop accepting fawns.
In September, KDWP learned that it came from Decatur County, which has been something of a hot spot in terms of CWD infections.
The animal was euthanized so that it could be tested for the disease, the only means currently possible. The results were negative.
"This is another case of well-meaning people trying to 'rescue' apparently abandoned animals, only leading to the animal's demise," according to a statement from KDWP in announcing its request to rehabilitators.
What it failed to say, however, is the deer that came from Decatur County had been seized by a KDWP game warden, who brought it to Newell in Hill City, who then worked with rehabilitator Dr. Jessica Braun to find a home for the fawn at the Hutchinson Zoo.
While babies in the wild are often left alone and considered by many to be abandoned, that's rarely the case. KDWP, Newell and Braun all urge people to leave animals in the wild where they belong, but they also take in animals when it's known the mother has been killed or simply to ensure their return the wild.
There are only 19 licensed wildlife rehabilitors in the state, and Newell and Braun are the only ones in northwest Kansas who accept all types of animals. They are both also federally licensed.
And they do the work out of the goodness of their heart. Newell covers all of her own costs, while Braun takes time out of her veterinarian practice to care for the animals so they can be released back into the wild if possible.
Braun currently has a fawn she is nursing back to health.
"I don't know what I'm supposed to do with him," she said pausing only slightly before declaring, "I'm going to release him. He was found in Ellis County and I'm going to release him in Ellis County."
For Braun, there is a dilemma she faces. As the operator of the non-profit Western Plains Animal Refuge, she has a no-kill policy.
So she's still struggling with how to deal with the request from KDWP and still honor her no-kill policy.
"I think it's going to lead to people trying to rehabilitate themselves," Braun said.
That presents other problems, when a deer imprints on humans and isn't suitable for returning into the wild.
In a normal year, Braun said she will have five to 10 fawns turned over to her for rehabilitation.
"Last year I think I had 10 and released five," she said. "This year we've had four and just one made it."
For Newell, who said she only knew about the extent of CWD through The Hays Daily News, it was the issue of asking a question -- repeatedly -- and never getting an answer.
It finally came down to a deer this spring, orphaned when its mother was struck and killed by a car. But it was injured as well and she wanted an answer before treating it.
She made several calls, to no avail, before finally contacting the Hill City Police Department to see if they would destroy the animal if she was unable to care for it.
The fawn died just as she got word to go ahead and rescue the animal.
Days later, she got an e-mail containing a press release asking rehabiltators to stop taking in deer.
She later received a form letter informing her of the same thing.
"It was very frustrating because I had made so many phone calls," she said.
Because rehabilitators are volunteers, she said, and must be licensed by the state, "they need to keep us informed."
Fawns aren't as susceptible to CWD, which is slow to develop in deer.
"You have to live for a while before they pick up prions," said KDWP wildlife disease coordinator Shane Hesting, "unless they get it from their mother."
But there has been at least one fawn testing positive.
For Newell, she no longer plans to take in fawns.
"I'm just going to hope no one calls," Braun said of how she'll handle the issue. "If it comes right down to it, we'll probably take them until they make it illegal. I'd rather have them rehabilitated correctly."
Not long after saying that, she got a call from the Wichita area, from someone who was simply told to put the fawn back in the wild, even though the mother had been killed.
The Wichita resident was soon driving the deer north for Braun to rehabilitate.
It's unlikely the issue will become law, Hesting said.
"I think we can handle it by education," he said. "We do have laws for people to not take animals out of the wild.
"People that take them out of the wild should take them back, right to where they found them. Even after four days is fine."
Braun said she tries to educate as well, telling people to leave the animal alone -- even if it looks like it might be abandoned. Typically, it's not, she said.
In cases where it's known the mother is dead, that complicates the issue even more.
"I don't know what the solution is, but I think this is an unreasonable expectation because nobody's going to do that knowing it's going to die," Braun said. "Everybody loves deer. Especially baby deer."