This was experience I’ll always remember |

This was experience I’ll always remember

by Merrie Leininger

After helping hand-raise baby deer and raccoons this spring, their release back into the wild was an experience I will never be able to forget.

This spring I signed up for the volunteers’ class at Lake Tahoe Wildlife Care center. The organization, run by Cheryl and Tom Milham out of their Meyers home for more than 22 years, requires that anyone who works in the center take the two-day class to be educated about the proper way to care for the injured and orphaned birds and animals they take in.

What I learned is it’s a lot more work than I would have ever imagined. I joked to Cheryl that I felt like some kind of weird waitress every time I worked there. Newly-hatched baby birds must be fed every 15 minutes for the first week or so. Then it’s bumped down to a whole 30 minutes. I fed milk to baby rabbits, squirrels and chipmunks through rubber nipples so small they are put on syringes. I ran from the kitchen to the outdoor animal enclosures with watermelon, mealworms, peanuts, dead chicks, mice and fish.

When the animals first come into the center injured or suddenly motherless, we are allowed to give them as much love as they need to survive the shock of the first few days. After we are sure they are strong enough, they are moved to isolation cages and only see people very rarely.

The deer, especially, are kept out of sight of humans because they easily become comfortable with humans. The care center built a large, fenced-in enclosure with an attached feeding area. The “waitress” for that day can put the food into the area and then open the door for the deer from outside.

n Capture and release. So, you can imagine their surprise when more than 20 people walked into their enclosure Saturday morning. Only the smallest animal came up to me and licked my hand. Unfortunately for her, she was grabbed by other people immediately and thrown into the back of a pickup truck with a cab over it. As the rest of the seven deer were herded into the feeding area for easier capture, I watched the animals run and leap in fear. Although I was glad they are as scared of humans as their counterparts who have lived their whole lives in the wild, I tried to block out their fear of me by picturing the animals as they were when I bottle fed them and they were no bigger than puppies.

We were allowed to release them on land owned by Sierra-at-Tahoe ski resort, high up on the mountain. After a treacherous climb in the pick-up truck, we opened the door of the truck and stood back.

Tentatively, one-by-one, the deer stuck their heads out, panting from the heat and stress of the ordeal, and awkwardly jumped to the ground.

Watching them take in their new surroundings with an obvious amount of confusion, I felt a pang.

What if we didn’t do enough? What if they still, after all our efforts, can’t manage survival on their own?

The feeling that we had done something intrinsically good for these animals, even if for only a small number compared to the numbers killed by humans every year, grew as they became more comfortable with their new surroundings.

Slowly, they wandered off, except that smallest deer, which was the last to get out of the truck and continued to stay near the crowd of volunteers. Finally, it was decided we should leave her and got back into the trucks.

Oh, no. Once she understood we were leaving, she became frantic and even began to follow us down the mountain. Imagining the confusion of this deer, who had only known humans as the source of food, I felt deeply sad. This little one didn’t have much of a chance with such a dependency on humans. Although the group, and especially the Milhams, do everything in their power, I know there will be some loss of life, but I also can’t help but feel a deep sadness about every one.

The convoy stopped and people got out in an attempt to scare her by yelling and clapping until she ran up the hill again.

Later that afternoon, the release of the 13 raccoons , far back of off Blue Lakes Road, went well.

The release marks an end to much of the work of the summer. Over the winter, the shelter takes care of few birds and even fewer mammals. Once the snow melts and the animals again come out in full force, the shelter – and its wait staff – will be needed again. Although I know I will again have to go through losing animals, when I am hand-feeding babies as a substitute mother, I will think ahead to their eventual release back into the wild with a smile.

Every time I see a mule deer contemplating a dash across a highway or simply grazing in a meadow, I feel a lightness inside and wonder if that is an animal I touched in a small way.