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Saving A Fawn Named Noël

In the days leading up to Christmas, an eager community nurses a young injured deer back to health.

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Saving A Fawn Named Noël

The struggling fawn was spotted where she had broken through the ice of the half-frozen Lake of Bays, near Port Cunnington, Ont., and had been reported to the Ministry of Natural Resources (MNR). But the MNR is not in the business of rescuing every deer that exercises bad judgment. There was nothing to be done.

Except that the sight of the little creature grated on Chris Winger and his pals, Gary and Lea Allinson. They made up their minds that if the ministry wouldn’t respond, they would.

When you grow up next to the frigid winter lakes of Muskoka, Ont., you venture out on the ice in December only with the greatest caution. The trio formed a rescue team and slid an aluminum boat carefully toward their objective-one foot in the boat, the other propelling it slowly along the frozen surface. It seemed to take forever.

When they got close enough, they saw that the fawn lay with her forelegs and chest on the ice and her hindquarters in the freezing water. They estimated that since she had first been spotted, she’d been there for nearly 48 hours. Her coat was frozen to the ice, and her struggling and slipping had spread-eagled her front legs. The men figured she was a goner, dead already.

Then they saw her big, liquid-brown eyes watching them. Reaching down to get a good hold on the back of her neck, Gary gave a mighty yank. The others steadied the boat-and prayed as the ice around them grumbled and cracked. Ripped from the ice, the little animal screamed pitifully, just once, very loudly. With the practised eye of veteran hunters, the three estimated she was about a year and a half old and weighed 25 kilograms. They wrapped the fawn-christened Noël, as Christmas was just five days away-in their warm coats and wrestled the boat back to shore. Then they loaded the bundled survivor in front of Gary on his snowmobile for the trip back to his workshop.

Huddled next to a wood stove, the rescue crew assessed the damage. The news was bad. The doe’s forelegs were frozen solid. They felt like icicles, hard and brittle. She couldn’t stand-the injuries caused by her flailing against the ice made one leg flop too far to the side, and the skin on her chest where she’d been pulled away from the ice was raw. It was hard to tell whether she was shivering more from the deadly cold or from sheer terror.

Lea went to phone the local vet. But on the Saturday evening just before Christmas, he was reluctant to take on a hopeless case. The deer was sure to die from exposure and shock. He recommended that they let nature take its course.

The three men looked at one another grimly. They hadn’t gone through all this just to abandon their mission now. But what to do? Horses have legs like a deer’s, they reasoned. Maybe Nancy Tapley, a horse trainer and co-owner of the nearby Bondi Village Resort, would be able to tell if the leg was broken. And she had a stable where the invalid could be made more comfortable. Lea picked up the phone again and called Tapley, who responded by jumping into her car and driving the short distance to Port Cunnington to see what could be done.

The injured fawn lay very still, watching with dull, pain-filled eyes, while they gently examined her and discussed her fate. Shock was a primary concern, in addition to the more obvious external injuries.

Casting about for help, Tapley thought of Alan Young in Terra Cotta, Ont., a friend who served as a vet to the Canadian equestrian team for many years. His expertise was with fragile, spindly-legged racehorses as well as with show jumpers. Young offered what little advice he could.

“Massage her ears to keep her out of shock,” he suggested. “Bottle-feed her warm milk and sugar, maybe with a bit of brandy. It may help, but I can’t promise anything.”

Surrounded by her rescuers, all hoping against the odds, the little fawn sipped from a baby’s bottle and, swaddled in blankets, fell asleep with her head in Gary’s lap.

The next morning, they moved Noël very carefully into the back seat of a car and drove her to Bondi Village, where they installed her in the stable-much to the astonishment of the horses already in residence. The fawn’s stablemates arched their necks, pricked up their ears and snorted loudly.

It was four days before Christmas, and the resort was full of people on a holiday break. They were all interested in Noël and anxious to help her pull through.

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The fawn couldn’t stand on her front legs; she didn’t have any feeling in them. Every 20 minutes she had to be checked and repositioned. She had to be coaxed to eat. Twice a day Tapley followed Young’s dir­ectives, administering the antibiotics he’d prescribed, checking her legs for the deadly telltale signs of gangrene and putting a dab of nail polish on the deer’s fur to mark the spot where she reacted to the small prick of a pin. The first dab was almost at the elbow, where the leg meets the body; below that, Noël apparently felt nothing.

“If you don’t see any improvement in a week,” Young warned in one of his frequent phone consultations, “she’s not going to make it. If the nerves are coming back, you should be able to see some change, however slight. But you’ll need a miracle.”

Half the neighbourhood was now involved-the entire Tapley family, along with resort guests and area children-helping to feed and massage the patient.

Tapley’s father, Paul, cut brush for Noël each morning so she would have food that was more familiar than the offerings from local grocers, who happily donated everything from avocados to yams. Noël’s favourites were grapes, raisins and-oddly-pineapple. For the most part, she ate a mix of oats and corn.

Even Toby, the family dog, got into the act, serving as a stand-in for Noël while Tapley’s mother, Rosemary, improvised a sling that would support the deer in a standing position. She adjusted the clumsy-looking contraption for balance and comfort while Toby hung there with a “What next?” look on his face, and Lea held the whole thing up. Toby’s expression clearly indicated his feelings about this not being a fit role for a poodle. Despite his contribution, however, the dog was barred from the stable. His scent on the sling didn’t bother Noël, but the sight of him peering around the door certainly did.

Once Noël was up in the sling, her hooves were soaked in warm water and gently massaged, then worked through some prescribed physiotherapy exercises. Nerve sensitivity was checked again and again with a gentle pinprick.

At the family Christmas dinner, Tapley’s cracker held a promise in addition to the usual party hat: “Miracles sometimes occur, but one has to work terribly hard for them.” She carefully held on to the slip of paper and to the hope that it offered.

A week later, two days after Christmas, Noël flinched when the pin pricked her leg a centimetre below the dab of nail polish. The nerves were coming back.

Noël’s hind legs recovered much more quickly than her front limbs, so she was soon able to stand without the sling, using her forelegs as awkward props. She couldn’t move forward, but she could push-pull herself backwards-until she inevitably tumbled over. For all hands, this meant more frequent trips to the stable to see that she didn’t hurt herself trying to stand and walk. By now, the dab of nail polish was moving further down her leg with each test. It reached her hooves after one month.

Within three weeks of graduating from her Toby sling, Noël was hopping along, following Tapley from stall to stall as she did the daily chores.

It was time for the next stage of rehabilitation, so Tapley’s brother, Brian, built an outdoor pen adjoining one end of the stable. As Noël became steadier on her feet, she seemed to tease him by pretending she was trying to escape. He was kept busy raising the sides of the pen, which Noël evidently thought was a splendid game. One foreleg was now shorter than the other, but the little deer was following doctor’s orders and getting plenty of exercise.

The entire community had adopted Noël. One of the Christmas guests at Bondi Village, 12-year-old Heather Grewar, won a bronze medal for telling the fawn’s story at her school’s public-speaking finals. A local youngster, Melaney Earl, placed third with a Grade 1 science-fair project entitled “What Noël Liked to Eat.” Reporters from The Huntsville Forester and local TV and radio stations were on first-name terms
with the deer. Even the MNR officer who had cautioned Tapley that it’s against the law in Ontario to keep white-tailed deer in captivity had taken to bringing carrots when he stopped by.

Everyone was on hand to see Noël leave one sunny May day when the trees were budding with promise. But when her pen was opened and everyone stood back, Noël was in no hurry. She took a few tentative steps, then hesitated and looked back, as if to say thank you.

Finally she bounded away into the woods-but not too far. The little deer with the funny limp in her gait was a familiar sight all summer long. Another season went by, and again Noël appeared at Bondi Village, bringing her own little fawn, making herself at home in the gardens and flicking her white tail in a friendly gesture toward the people who had worked so hard to give her back her life.