VASSALBORO — Every day around 1 p.m., Donald Cote gathers a handful of plastic baby bottles, fills them with goat’s milk, warms the bottles up in his microwave and heads to a shed in his backyard.

Inside, nestled on a bed of soft wood chips, are seven wide-eyed and fuzzy fawns.

“Come on, baby, come over here,” the 81-year-old Cote says as he approaches the young animals to give them their lunchtime meal.

Late spring and early summer are the busiest time of year for Cote, who runs The Wildlife Care Center here and has been raising and caring for abandoned and injured wildlife for about the last 50 years.

Donald Cote measures formula made with goat’s milk in a baby bottle Friday by the window in his kitchen as he prepares to feed seven fawns in his care at Wildlife Care Center in Vassalboro. Morning Sentinel photo by Michael G. Seamans

It’s also a busy time of year for wildlife activity in general. Newborn animals abound, and while they might be tempting to interact with, especially if there are questions about the animal’s health or safety, experts such as Cote and others caution it’s usually best to bring concerns to them.

“Too often people see a young animal alone and assume it has been abandoned by its mother, when in fact the mother has likely just left temporarily to search for food,” Maine Department of Inland Fisheries & Wildlife Division Director Nate Webb said this week in a news release. “In most cases, it’s best to leave the animal alone because wildlife has a much better chance at survival when they aren’t disrupted by humans.”

According to the department, the nutrients in a mother deer’s milk enable fawns to be left for many hours as mothers feed on their own to help maintain the high energy demands of nursing the fawn.

Adult does will return two or three times a day to nurse fawns, but otherwise leave them in a safe place and rely on the fawn’s camouflage and lack of scent to protect them from predators.

As soon as a fawn is able to keep up with its mother, it will travel more with the mother.

But that doesn’t mean there are never circumstances in which an animal might be in distress and need help, said Oakland Animal Control Officer Pat Faucher, who two weeks ago rescued a fawn that was found crying on the side of Webb Road in Oakland and was taken to Cote.

Donald Cote feeds one of the seven fawns currently in his care Friday at the Wildlife Care Center in Vassalboro. Morning Sentinel photo by Michael G. Seamans

On Friday it blended in with the group of six other deer in his backyard shed, eagerly drinking from a bottle he fed it by hand.

When it was done eating, the fawn cuddled with the others as Cote cleaned them up and straightened out their bed of sawdust.

He typically feeds the young deer every six hours, including at 1 a.m.

Faucher said, “I try to leave it and see (what happens). Usually the mom’s not too far away, but if I hear it’s been a couple days, that could mean something’s wrong and something could have happened.

“The mom either got hit and died somewhere or the mom was running somewhere and the fawn can’t keep up. The mom keeps going and the fawn gets disoriented.”

In the Webb Road case, Faucher said he got a call about the fawn from a woman who normally walks the road. When he went out to look at it, he was alarmed at the fact the baby was only about 3 to 4 feet away from the road.

“If a mom is going to leave it, usually she’ll do so in a more protected, thick area that’s not so visible,” he said. “That triggered something in my mind. A fawn shouldn’t be there like that on the side of the road.”

Faucher, who has worked as an animal control officer for 19 years, said he averages about three calls per week related to baby animals in the late spring and summer.

This week he had seven, including five baby skunks that were found under a camp in Oakland.

“I don’t know where the mom was,” Faucher said. “I know they were pretty hungry.”

The young skunks also ended up at Cote’s, where they huddled together for warmth Friday afternoon in a plastic bin.

Amy Messier holds a group of raccoon kits before feeding time Friday in the living room of Donald Cote, owner of the Wildlife Care Center in Vassalboro. Morning Sentinel photo by Michael G. Seamans

About 80% to 85% of the animals Cote takes in are babies believed to have been abandoned by their mothers. He aims to rehabilitate and release all of them back to the wild, but said that doesn’t always happen.

“There are a lot of tears shed before you get to the release,” Cote said. Some animals don’t survive because they are injured or disabled and end up dying or needing to be euthanized.

He typically ends up raising and releasing about 10 to 12 fawns each year, raising them on goat’s milk from the time they arrive in late spring or summer and transitioning them to grain and grass later on.

The fawns are released the following spring, when they’re strong enough to make it in the wild on their own.

As long as they grow up together, Cote said, the animals usually don’t have a problem adapting to the wild.

“As long as you don’t stay with them all the time and play with them, then they won’t bond with you,” he said. “But if there’s only one, he doesn’t know anything but you, and he’ll bond to you.”

Along with fawns, the nonprofit center cares for raccoons, foxes, porcupines, rabbits, squirrels and coyotes. An occasional moose has passed through its doors.

Knowing when an animal should be brought in depends on the situation, and Cote said it can be a good idea to talk to a rehabilitation specialist for questions about whether an animal needs help.

“If you see a deer out there and you see him in the field or whatever and he’s not saying a word, leave him alone,” Cote said. “If he’s bawling his head off, then he definitely should be picked up, because he hasn’t had his mother for at least 24 hours.”

 


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