Except for a section of wrought-iron screen fencing along the upper street side—totally useless for keeping anything in or out—my garden is open to all. The wild critters were here long before we came along—preemptive rights, I think is the legal term—and they depend on the pond across the road below our property during the hot summer months in the Sierra Nevada foothills. It seemed only neighborly to preserve an unobstructed path for them to access the water.
It didn’t take long, though, for the deer to discover my garden affords a much closer water source, a straight-sided, two-level ornamental waterfall and pool that wrap partway around the back terrace. They also soon discovered I have plenty of fresh, green, growing things to nibble on. Mostly, they’re polite and limit their munching to the plants they like best, the six-foot-tall “carpet roses” and a few of the smaller hydrangeas in the shade garden. The deer don’t do any lasting damage. And they don’t touch my favorite azaleas and rhododendrons, or the daffodils in the early spring. Sometimes they take midday naps in the shade beneath the low-hanging branches of half a dozen redwoods below our meadow, but, otherwise, they generally meander through, have a little snack, then move on to the neighbors’ properties and the larger forested parcels farther up the mountain. I like knowing they’re around.
I first discovered how hospitable the deer find my garden one day years ago while puttering around outside—just pickin’ and pokin’, I call it. I noticed two rather strange leaves sticking up amid the groundcover alongside one of the paths. Furry, brownish points among the mottled green leaves. I stopped in my tracks. The strange leaves twitched, as though ruffled by a welcome breeze. Only there wasn’t any breeze. The small fawn lifted its head just enough to see whether I represented a threat, then nestled back down, folding its ears out of sight against its skull.
I remembered Harriett telling me one time that a mule deer will often hide her young fawn in the thickest foliage she can find, press her muzzle down on top of its head to instruct it stay put, wander off to graze a while on her own, and finally return for the baby a couple of hours later.
“But why doesn’t the fawn just scramble after her?” I asked.
“Right from the moment of their birth, fawns are programmed to obey instantly, without question. It’s a matter of survival. If the does don’t eat, there won’t be milk for the babies. Actually, they’re much better behaved than our own youngsters,” Harriett replied with a wry grin, remembering her own four rambunctious sons.
So this baby hadn’t been abandoned at all, merely dropped off at daycare. I slowly backed away and left it alone, and an hour later it was gone.
One of the highlights of spring in my garden is catching a glimpse of a brand new fawn wobbling along on spindly legs behind its mama as she makes her daily rounds. I usually see several each year. The spring of 2016 was no exception. One morning in early May, through the French door in the library, I spotted a doe and her new baby down in the Cedar Circle. I slipped outside for a better look. As I drew closer, Mama didn’t panic but moved slowly down the rock steps into the meadow. Bambi tottered along behind. I followed as far as the top step and from there watched as the two disappeared into the shadows beneath the redwoods on the far side.
Already very close to one of my Martha Stewart-green hoses, I decided to give the azaleas some extra water as I’d sprinkled on a little fertilizer the day before. Still gazing absentmindedly at the spot where the deer mama and baby had ambled into the trees below, I reached down for the nozzle with my left hand and at the same time leaned over to turn on the spigot with my right. Suddenly I got the fright of my life! On top of the neatly coiled hose, only inches from my hand, was something strange, round, and dark. I shrieked and jumped back, certain it was a coiled baby rattler and I was a goner. But it didn’t strike. It didn’t move at all, just lay there, motionless, looking like a wet, partially deflated football with mottled white spots.
Gradually my heart stopped pounding and my breathing slowed to normal. This fawn was much smaller than the first, no more than ten minutes old, still wet from the doe’s tongue where she’d eaten away the amniotic sac. Bambi Two!
I knew enough to leave the newborn alone, that the doe would return for it, so I went back into the house and continued to watch through the window. Sure enough, twenty minutes later mama came back alone. She licked the tiny creature all over and tried to nuzzle it to its feet, but it was so weak it couldn’t hold its head up, let alone stand. Mama left again.
Over the next several hours, she returned three more times but still couldn’t get the baby to its feet. It shuddered every few seconds but still didn’t lift its head. It occurred to me that the fawn needed nourishment to gain strength, but if it couldn’t stand, it couldn’t access the doe’s teats. I watched and fretted. Another hour passed.
Certain now that mama had abandoned this pint-sized infant, I couldn’t just sit by and do nothing. In the kitchen, I pulled out my Pyrex one-cup measure and poured in an ounce of evaporated milk, an ounce of warm water, and a couple of drops of Karo syrup. I found an ear syringe in the bathroom, swished it in rubbing alcohol, and washed and dried it. From the ragbag in the laundry room, I grabbed an old towel and headed for the Cedar Circle.
At first I thought the baby was dead, it was so still. Then it quivered, and its tiny sides rose and fell a time or two. I sat down on the ground, carefully wrapped the towel around the fawn, pulled it onto my lap, and began gently massaging it all over. In a few minutes the baby’s eyelids fluttered. “It’s okay, it’s okay,” I murmured softly as it fastened its gaze on my face. I saw no fear, only trust. With my left hand, I lightly grasped Bambi Two under its chin and nudged the ear syringe between its square white teeth. Big teeth for such a tiny baby. At first the milk dribbled out the sides of its mouth onto the towel, but as I kept stroking its throat with my thumb, finally it swallowed once, then twice. Then several more times. I continued gently caressing the baby all over until it fell asleep, then left it there atop the coiled hose, wrapped in the towel, and went back inside to make a phone call.
When I returned to the Cedar Circle twenty minutes later, Bambi Two was gone, leaving behind the towel nest. I began to search, first the rest of the Cedar Circle and then the Shade Garden. Climbing three more rock steps toward the utility corner—home to our air-conditioning unit and woodpile—out of the corner of my eye I caught sight of the baby, collapsing on the ground even as its mama disappeared around the corner of the house. Again, I wrapped the baby in the dish towel, massaged it all over, and fed it another ounce of formula.
By now it was late afternoon, time to make dinner and tend to other evening chores. Convinced I’d done all I could, I wrapped the baby up one final time and went inside for the night, wondering if I’d ensured its survival—or poisoned it with my makeshift formula.
The next morning the towel was there, but not the fawn. Had a coyote gotten it, or the bobcat some neighbors had reported seeing?
The story of Bambi Two spread quickly up and down our street. Everyone kept watch. After ten anxious days, Suzanne from next door ran over at dusk to tell me they’d just seen a mama deer with two fawns, one much larger than the other, crossing their front lawn.
I was elated! Hubby and I celebrated with a bottle of champagne.