In turnabout, state Fish and Wildlife releases family's pet deer into the wild

03/28/2013 12:00 AM

03/28/2013 1:39 PM

A day after confiscating a Rio Linda family's pet deer – saying chances were "very slim" they would release it into the wild – California Fish and Wildlife officials reversed course Wednesday and did so, alarming experts who say the doe won't be able to survive on her own.

The wildlife agency defended its decision to release the animal, saying experienced staff had evaluated the deer and determined she was a good candidate for release.

She had been "somewhat of a free-roaming deer," said Janice Mackey, a spokeswoman for Fish and Wildlife. "We talked with the owner and there was some evidence that she got out and about."

Preston Doughty, president of Austin Wildlife Rescue in Texas and a specialist in deer rehabilitation, said immediately releasing an animal that had spent two years as a family pet into the wild "is the wrong thing to do, absolutely."

"She doesn't have the skills to survive in the wild," he said. "She's going to walk right up to a dog or a horse or a human who will slash her throat."

Two years ago, when she was a fawn, truck driver Juan Cervantes found the deer near a dead doe on a highway in Sutter County. Cervantes took it home, where his wife, Saida, bottle-fed the fawn until it could eat corn and alfalfa in the paddock with the family's chickens and goats.

They named the deer Floracita – "little flower" in Spanish – and she roamed the family's rural property in Rio Linda.

"We would never take an animal like that with the expectation of returning it to the wild," Doughty said. "If it can't be placed in an educational facility, we would put it down."

When Fish and Wildlife confiscated the deer Tuesday, spokesman Mark Michilizzi said the chances of its immediate release were "very slim."

On Wednesday, an agency spokeswoman called that "an early assessment."

Janice Mackey said additional information and an examination of the deer resulted in the decision to release it. "Our goal is to keep wild animals wild, and we want wildlife in the wild," she said.

Another deer rehabilitation expert, Diane Nicholas of Kindred Spirits Fawn Rescue in Loomis, said it generally takes six to eight months to prepare a domesticated deer Floracita's age for the wild.

Nicholas said she teaches deer how to eat brush and crack acorns. She had hoped she would be allowed to rehabilitate the deer but was enthusiastic nonetheless when told of the animal's release.

Nicholas said it's a good time of year to release a deer because of the fresh grass and oak trees starting to turn green.

Candace Taylor, who lives next door to the Cervantes family in Rio Linda and led neighbors protesting Fish and Wildlife's action Tuesday, was distraught Wednesday afternoon.

"That's a death sentence," she said through sobs. "They told the Cervantes family they would hold her for a couple of weeks and evaluate her. Oh, my God. It's not appropriate to tell the family one thing and to do something different."

The Cervantes family did not answer their phone Wednesday and could not be reached for comment.

The agency's decision to confiscate the deer caused considerable public outcry. The Bee received dozens of phone calls and emails and hundreds of online comments.

Most, including an email from Karen Rogone, who teaches the first-grade class that includes 6-year-old Ulises Cervantes, questioned why the deer was taken.

Rogone said the deer "almost certainly cannot be returned to the wild. I think a petting zoo or another kind of zoo would be ideal as she is very used to people, and the family could visit her."

The Department of Fish and Wildlife acknowledged in a Facebook post that "situations like this are full of emotions."

"The primary concern for CDFW is the long-term welfare of the animal. Deer, who are genetically programmed to roam long distances in the wild, often find caged environments very stressful."

Officials would not reveal where Floracita was released.

In 2010, about 439 fawns were turned in at California rehabilitation facilities by well-meaning members of the public, the agency said.

"Many of these fawns were healthy and should not have been disturbed," said a statement on the department's Facebook page. "If you think young wildlife is in distress, you may call your local CDFW office for guidance."

Jennifer Fearing, state representative for the Humane Society of the United States, said she supports the agency's handling of the deer.

"I can appreciate that this family formed a bond, and they thought they did the right thing by bringing the deer home."

But keeping a wild animal, she said, "is illegal, and it is rightly illegal."

Doughty, of Austin Wildlife Rescue, said fawns rarely if ever should be removed from the wild. Deer that appear to be orphaned or too young to live on their own "should be left alone," he said.

They likely will survive just fine, he said.

Call The Bee's Diana Lambert, (916) 321-1090. Read her Report Card blog at http://blogs.sacbee.com/report-card/.

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