Amy Roberts: What does compassion cost? $400
Sometimes I feel like I’m on Season 5 of my life and now the writers are just making up crazy plot twists to keep the audience engaged. Things really jumped the shark last week when I found myself inadvertently becoming the venison version of Erin Brockovich.
Part of this story was covered by the local news, but in 90 seconds, it’s impossible to capture all the important details that developed over 30-plus hours. (I likely won’t be able to do it within my word count either.)
While out hiking, I came across a fawn lying motionless on the trail. I assumed it was dead — its mouth was open, tongue hanging out. There was fresh blood pooled in its ear, the eye I could see was red and unblinking. I bent down to move it off the trail and I saw its chest rise. It was breathing, but barely.
In this moment, many things went through my mind — none of which involved the legal system.
I knew without a doubt this deer was suffering and dying. Newborns will lay motionless as a defense while their mom is off feeding, but this was not a newborn. I estimated it weighed about 15 pounds; newborns usually weigh between four and eight pounds. Because it was open-mouth breathing I could see and count its teeth. This deer had premolars and incisors, which come in around two months. At two months, a fawn forages on its own and no longer ‘plays dead’ as a defense mechanism.
I know these things because I’m a bit of a wildlife geek. I’ve taken a number of naturalist courses and have cumulatively spent years volunteering at wildlife rescue and rehabilitation sanctuaries around the world. Last year I completed a safari guiding certification course in Botswana. I state all this to offer some level of assurance I wasn’t a “deer in the headlights” in this situation. I know the difference between an animal that’s suffering and one that’s scared. I have seen many animals in their final hours, I know what that looks like.
And in that moment on a that trail, this is the conversation that took place in my mind:
Reason: Leave it for mountain lion.
Compassion: It’s 11 a.m. Mountain lions hunt in the middle of the night. The ratio between mountain lion and deer populations is extraordinary; that cat isn’t going to go hungry. If I leave this fawn, it will endure misery for at least 14 more hours. In that time, birds will tear off its flesh and peck out its eyeballs. Must it suffer like that?
Reason: Leave it for the scavengers.
Compassion: Scavengers eat dead things. This deer is still alive. There are also roughly 18 carcasses on the side of the road.
Reason: Let nature take its course.
Compassion: This is a one-size-fits-all solution preferred by those who lack critical thinking skills. Man’s intervention has long surpassed nature’s ability to correct itself. Spraying wildlife’s food with poison is not natural. It’s not like on the seventh day God created the interstate system, yet vehicles are a constant threat to wildlife. What if this fawn was hit by a mountain biker? That’s not a natural way to go. If we believed nature’s reaction to be the solution always, we wouldn’t vaccinate our pets against rabies and other natural diseases. If nothing else, it is not in my nature to see an animal in pain and not care.
In that moment, compassion proved to have a stronger argument. I gently picked up the fawn and carried her home.
When I got to the road a kind woman saw me struggling with a comatose deer and two dogs and offered us all a ride. Once at my house, we decided to divide and conquer — she would call the Department of Wildlife Resources (DWR) and I would call a wildlife rehabilitation center. There was a lot of Google searching, networking, and contacting other experts as well. Commotion reigned.
For the sake of brevity, this is how the story ends: On the day I found this deer, I did not speak with the DWR officer, the woman helping me did. She left shortly after her call with him while I was still on the phone with the wildlife group who asked thoughtful questions about the deer’s age and condition and requested I send them a video so they could make an informed decision. They confirmed my conclusion and told me this deer was suffering and I should call a DWR officer right away to have it euthanized.
I tried to get in touch with this officer multiple times over the next 24 hours but he did not respond. When I finally did get ahold of him, he demanded to know why I had “disobeyed” his instructions and still had the deer. I explained that I had never spoken to him and the information I received from the wildlife group was that the fawn needed to be euthanized. I texted him a video of the deer and a screenshot of the email I received from the group recommending this action. Clearly agitated, he told me he’d be over sometime that evening to take care of it. The deer passed away on its own before he arrived. When he came to collect the carcass, he handed me a $400 citation (I’m pretty sure it was a ‘spite-tation’ for not following his commands, which he claimed he delivered via a third party.)
No doubt, many people see this in black and white. It’s my responsibility to know the law, no matter how obscure, and follow it. They aren’t wrong. But we live in a world of color, where things like intent and circumstance matter. Speeding is against the law, but if you’re speeding to the hospital with a passenger in need of medical care, you typically get a free pass.
Extending kindness, easing agony, and allowing compassion to have a say in the decision-making process aren’t typically considered criminal behaviors. There is no shame in choosing to be kind over choosing to be callous, and it’s unfortunate Utah has a little-known legal clause designed to punish empathy.
I’m apparently not alone in this thought process. When this story was picked up by the local news, I was contacted by a number of covert deer organizations resisting an archaic law. “We aren’t looking to save and adopt deer,” one person told me. “We just don’t believe an animal should be left to suffer and starve if it’s been hit by a vehicle or otherwise injured.”
I was also contacted by people who shared their personal unflattering stories of a DWR officer’s response, and lawyers who offered to help me fight this citation pro bono.
And while I still can’t believe that a mundane hike and simple act of compassion plot twisted into deer court and discovering an underground network of wildlife advocates, I do find comfort in knowing there are still so many good people trying to do the right thing on behalf of an animal.
Amy Roberts is a freelance writer, longtime Park City resident and the proud owner of two rescued Dalmatians, Stanley and Willis.
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Tom Clyde has a lot to worry about these days, with the coronavirus pandemic, the uncertain economy and airplane parts falling from the sky. Add mountain lions to the list.