Years ago I had trail cameras set up in a 400-acre urban forest in north Kansas City at a natural pond that was the only permanent water source in the forest. Wildlife of all sorts came to this water and it was a great place to get photos of the behaviors of many species. In July I noticed a white-tailed fawn that had what looked like a plastic PVC pipe connector sleeve on its right front foot. It had apparently stepped through this cylindrical piece of hard plastic and it had become lodged between the hooves and the dew claws and was stuck there. In most images the fawn held that foot up off the ground and was apparently annoyed by the device, and probably in pain. It seemed to fit tightly and only promised to exert more pressure on the foot as the fawn grew into adulthood.

I kept collecting imagery from my cameras over the late summer and into early fall, and I saw this fawn repeatedly, in August, September, and October. It seemed to be showing up at this pond about once a month and I felt that I might be able to predict its time of appearance closely enough to be able to go out and be there when it came. I knew that if I could just get the fawn immobilized I could remove this plastic impediment in about a minute with a cordless Dremel tool.

The best means of immobilizing the fawn seemed to be a tranquilizer dart. I wrote to the Missouri Department of Conservation and told them of the situation and requested permission to dart this fawn for the purpose of relieving its suffering and releasing it to resume a normal life. That permission was eventually granted but it was a month in coming. During that time I went ahead in anticipation of approval and purchased an anesthetic dart rifle and cartridges. I contacted a local veterinarian who had worked with me on other wildlife research projects in this forest and he agreed to supply the proper dose of anesthetic for my darts and even expressed the desire to come out into the field when I was planning to try to dart the animal.

Photo by James Taulman.

Learning to use the dart gun effectively was a project. I set up a target consisting of several layers of cardboard to simulate what might be the resistance of the skin and body of the fawn. I experimented with different levels of power from the CO2 cartridges and different distances from the target. Firing from 20 yards away at too low a power level resulted in the dart falling short of the target or just bouncing off at a slightly higher power level or shorter distance. Too high a power setting and a closer distance resulted in the dart penetrating through all the layers of cardboard, a situation which would probably have killed the animal. The rifle also had to be aimed well above the target in order for the arcing trajectory of the dart to hit the middle of the target. I spent many CO2 cartridges and shot about a hundred rounds of empty practice darts before finally arriving at what I believed was a suitable distance, power setting, and trajectory arc to achieve the right amount of penetration and accuracy. Even with that preparation I still had to have the good fortune to encounter the fawn and at a workable distance from the blind.

I finally had everything in order in November and set up a blind at the pond and, with night vision binoculars I had purchased, I waited in my blind on many nights that month, but never saw the fawn. I only got one more trail camera shot that was unclear, but I believe it was the fawn with the PVC, on November 3. But I was not in the blind on that night. I did not get any additional trail camera images of the fawn and never saw it again.

This adventure unfortunately did not end as I had wished. It was a real event fraught with uncertainty and lack of control of circumstances, not a fictional short story in which I could control the outcome. I collected many other trail camera images showing a variety of injuries and maladies affecting the animals in this forest, such as frequent examples of mange, which was common in wildlife there. I also saw unusual growths on deer, injuries from inaccurate arrow punctures (bow hunting by the city police department hunting club was encouraged there by the university president who oversaw use of the forest), and broken bones that had healed in awkward positions.

We commonly see wildlife that have perished on roadsides from collisions with vehicles. But we usually aren’t exposed to the trials and tribulations that wild animals experience in their daily lives. In addition to natural predators and hunting pressure, they are vulnerable to injury from the detritus that humans leave in natural areas. The forest in this story was an “old field” that had previously been farmland with habitations, and subsequently abandoned with a forest growing up over the last 50 years or so. The forest floor was thus littered with all sorts of trash and partially buried fencing. I am encouraged as I hike trails in New Mexico national forests to see how clean they are of trash. Our outdoor enthusiasts are for the most part considerate of the land and other users, and our New Mexico wildlife also benefit from an environment free from hazardous trash.