By Mara Certic
Last week, a Facebook post recounting the graphic story of a sterilized doe who died after trying to give birth to two stillborn fawns was shared over 400 times by East End residents, many of whom feared the sterilization procedure caused the birth defect and eventual death.
Scientists from White Buffalo, the non-profit organization hired to conduct the ovarectomies this winter, said there is no medical reason why the sterilization would affect a doe in this way, and that, although a horrific sight to see, a breech birth of stillborn twins is a “normal” event in the wild.
“I’ve been working on deer for 25 years, working closely with them. I’ve seen them have mummified fetuses that kill them, I’ve seen mutated deer. These are normal outlier events that happen in nature,” explained Dr. Anthony DeNicola, president of White Buffalo. “It just so happens that when it’s in suburbia, people see it and it doesn’t seem like the wild.”
On Sunday, May 24, wildlife rescue workers were called to the aid of a distressed doe in the backyard of a house on Newtown Lane in East Hampton Village. The deer had large number 57s attached to her ears, marking her as one of the does sterilized in the village program last winter.
When Jane Gill and Dell Cullum, both volunteers at the Evelyn Alexander Wildlife Rescue Center, arrived at the scene, the pregnant doe was trying to give birth to a fawn that was clearly dead, its head hanging out of the birth canal and covered in flies.
“I’ll never have that visual out of my mind,” Ms. Gill said last week. She, Mr. Cullum and his wife tried to calm the deer by gently stroking her and speaking softly while they got in touch with a veterinarian to ask how to proceed. Vets reached by phone could not or would not come to the scene, and eventually, Mr. Cullum took it upon himself to try to remove the stillborn fawn to try to relieve some of the doe’s pain.
He pulled out the two baby deer, both about two feet long and fully formed with spotted fur, and both, badly mutated, he said. The doe died about 15 minutes after the two fawns were removed.
“I threw them back into the weeds because of how disgustingly mutated they were. There were features in the deer that were not normal, on both of them,” Mr. Cullum said. “Both of them had an appearance in their mouths that was not normal or a part of decomposition, and there was a feature of the second deer that was a complete mutation,” he said, but would not go into further detail.
“I’ve seen deer abort and I’ve seen deer have babies. When they abort they’re usually small. In many cases, the aborted fetus could be just bigger than a chipmunk. These weren’t physically correct and they were stillborn,” Mr. Cullum said.
“I’ve spoken to several vets around the country, as I’m sure you can imagine, and I’ve gotten all sorts of different stories,” said Mr. Cullum, who has worked with animals for years, as a wildlife photographer and as a live-trapper. “I don’t have a degree in this and I don’t pretend to, I just feel that my instinct in having much experience with wildlife is that this just wasn’t one of those normal things.”
Vickie DeNicola, from White Buffalo, the company that performed the sterilizations, said that she and the vets cannot think of any situation where the ovarectomy performed on the deer could have resulted in these mutated, stillborn babies.
A requirement of a state Department of Environmental Conservation permit for the program states that there must be a licensed veterinarian on the team sterilizing the deer.
“When we do a surgery, we’re removing the ovaries, we’re not removing the uterus,” explained Dr. Jeffrey Newman, a veterinarian who works with White Buffalo. “We do this all the time for dogs and cats and have great results. When we do this with deer, a lot of them are already pregnant,” he explained.
If the fetus is very small, he explained, it will be resorbed or expelled from the deer and the pregnancy will be terminated. According to Dr. DeNicola, studies show that past the 150-day mark, fetuses can be viable, the placenta will begin to produce progesterone and the pregnancy will be completed to term.
Hearing about what happened, Dr. DeNicola said that it sounds as if the fawns died because they were in a breech position. “It’s like a breeched birth in a person, you have to have medical attention,” he said. “If you look at cattle and horses, if it’s head first, vet help is usually needed.” In his opinion, Dr. Newman said it was possible that the fawns had died from complications of the breeched birth a few days before and had begun to decompose inside the doe, causing sepsis in her.
When it comes to the deformities, without photographs it is difficult for the vets to establish what happened. None of the drugs used have ever had any correlation with congenital defects, Dr. Newman said. He said that what looked like deformities could very well have been post-mortem degeneration.
“I’m a scientist,” Dr. DeNicola explained. “If there was something interesting here I’d be fascinated,” he said.
“I feel very strongly that the drugs had nothing to do with this,” Dr. Newman said.
White Buffalo has not yet published the results of its sterilization programs in any peer-reviewed journals, and Ms. DeNicola said it was waiting to obtain more data. But so far, a similar-sized sterilization program in San Jose, California, has seen a mortality rate of less than 1 percent, and has resulted in a decrease to the deer population of about 40 percent. A project in upstate New York has seen equally low mortality rates, she said.
The deer’s tags allow them to be traced, so that White Buffalo can keep track of what has happened to them. Most of the deer that do die, Ms. DeNicola said, get hit by cars.
Wendy Chamberlin, an animal activist and wildlife rescue rehabilitator, said that although she herself would rather see immunocontraception, she is still a supporter of sterilization programs instead of an organized culling of the herd.
“I think the most important thing is to figure out why this happened, how this happened, and if it had anything to do with sterilization, how to prevent it from happening again,” she said.
“But everyone wants to find a nonlethal way to help control the deer population. Sterilization isn’t the best way, but it’s one way and it’s highly recommended by the humane society,” she added.
Stephanie Boyles Griffin, of the Humane Society of the United States, said that its stance is that any nonlethal method is better than the alternative, better than culling.
“There’s not a zero mortality rate, but there’s no situation where you’re handling a wild animal where there’s a zero mortality rate,” she explained.
“The intent is not to kill animals, knowing that in certain situations, despite our best efforts, we may have mortality,” she said.
“It is our understanding that this was not a complication directly related to the ovarectomy,” said Village Administrator Becky Molinaro, who said that the whole incident has been very upsetting. “The village continues to be supportive of the program,” she added.
Mr. Cullum remains uneasy about the whole process. “The choice to interfere with these animals with chemicals, and doing field surgeries and separating them from herds, releasing them back into the elements,” he said, “It just doesn’t ring right with me. It doesn’t seem fair to the animal.”