Bambi, Bambi

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.

It Takes a Village

Several weeks after the birth of the Bambi twins, I was seated one sunny morning in the breakfast room, paying bills and tending to the mound of paperwork that routinely accumulates on my desk. You know, activities like addressing birthday cards, reading again the most recent submissions of writer friends from my critique group, inventorying and updating a list of cleaning supplies in anticipation of my next trip down to Costco. The phone rang. It was Steve, our next-door neighbor.

“Hey, Pat. Say, I’ve just been out on the driveway—gonna wash my car—and I heard something strange coming from your backyard. Like a baby crying or something. Did you guys get a new puppy, too?”

“I wish,” I replied, “but no, no new puppy or kitten. I didn’t hear anything when I was out earlier with my coffee, but I’ll go out and have a look.”

I crossed the kitchen and stepped out through the French door onto the back terrace to listen. I heard only the gurgle of water cascading into the lower pool of our water feature and the whirr of humming-bird wings as several Anas swooped around the nectar feeder, attacking one another and vying for dominance. Somewhere in the distance, a Stellar’s Jay squawked. Nothing unusual.

Then, out of the corner of my eye, off to my right I caught sight of a doe and fawn just disappearing quickly through the Cedar Circle and down into the Shade Garden. I headed in that direction, but by the time I got there, they had bounded down the rock steps and disappeared into the redwoods. I proceeded on around the house to the front, but still I heard nothing strange. Maybe Steve was mistaken. Maybe what he heard was coming from Jay and Bonnie’s, his neighbors on the other side. They had a new labradoodle pup.

I strolled down the street in the direction of Steve’s driveway, but he met me halfway. “I just heard it again,” he said urgently. “It’s definitely a distress call. Something’s wrong.”

By now Steve’s wife, Suzanne, had come outside, too, and the three of us hurried, single file, through the wrought-iron gate into our backyard to investigate further. As we rounded the garden shed, we all heard it, a piercing, high-pitched cry, definitely coming from below the back terrace. Fanning out in different directions, we listened intently. There it was again! We all heard it!

Suzanne was standing closest to the pool. Suddenly she screamed. “Here it is! Here it is! It can’t get out!”

In the shadowy corner of our pool, a small fawn floated limply, droplets of blood dribbling from beneath its chin and spreading over the water’s surface. In a flash, Steve reached down with both hands, grasped the dripping baby, lifted it gently out of the chilly water, and placed it on the flagstones. Its eyes were shut tight and it shook uncontrollably.

Racing back into the house for a towel, I wrapped the shivering baby, pulled it onto my lap, and began rubbing it all over to restore circulation, just as I’d done with the newborn fawn right after its birth only a few weeks before. Was this the same baby? Was this Bambi Two?

Soon its dark eyes fluttered open, but there was no fear, only relief. As I continued the massage, gradually the violent shaking subsided into a gentle heaving of its mottled, spotted sides. Now we could see how Bambi Two had struggled. I blotted the abrasions under its chin where the skin had been scraped raw on the brick coping of the pool.

As Suzanne ran home for her camera, Steve and I speculated about what might have happened. The mama must have come to drink from our pool, accompanied by her two mismatched fawns. Perhaps the larger fawn had been able to successfully drink also. But the littler one, Bambi Two, with its shorter legs, must have had a harder time and ultimately tumbled in, then couldn’t get out. Who could tell how long the baby had thrashed about in the water as its anguished mama stood helplessly by, unable to do a single thing, despite its beseeching cries, to save her drowning baby?

 

Suzanne returned and snapped this picture. Then I wrapped the fawn in the towel again and continued stroking its head and ears until it dozed off, finally safe but completely exhausted.

After sharing a cup of hot tea and catching up on other neighborhood news, Suzanne and Steve returned to their chores, and I to mine. Every so often, I went back out to check on the fawn and scratch its ears. Still, it exhibited no fear. Two hours later, Bambi Two was gone