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PAWS Mailing Address:
PO Box 1037
Lynnwood WA, 98046

PAWS Street Address:
15305 44th Ave W
Lynnwood, WA 98087

November 16th, 2005
Kevin Mack

Follow the Leader?
by Kevin Mack, PAWS Wildlife Naturalist

On October 18th, five large wooden boxes stood side-by-side in a field. The only sounds that could be heard came from a cacophony of gulls and crows arguing over the rights to spawned-out salmon carcasses on the banks of the Green River nearby. The occupant of one of the wooden boxes was restless, and the box rocked noticeably as the animal shifted its weight. PAWS wildlife interns Tamara Hollinger and Lindsey Edwards climbed on top of two of the boxes; PAWS staff member Marnie Tyson climbed on top of a third. Officials from the King County Parks Department took up positions on top of the two remaining boxes. On my signal, the doors to all five boxes slid upward simultaneously. With looks of anxious anticipation on their faces, everyone waited to see what would happen next.

The last deer exited her box, tail first.

The last deer exited her box, tail first.

This story began on May 17th, when a small, spotted Black-tailed Deer fawn arrived at PAWS after being found in the middle of the road. She had apparently been hit by a car and had scrapes on her head, neck and mouth. She was joined eight days later on May 25th by a male fawn that had suffered bite wounds on his head and throat during a predator attack. He had somehow survived, but had become separated from his mother in the process. A third fawn arrived on June 2nd after being found alone and hungry in the middle of the road. A fourth fawn, unintentionally orphaned by well-meaning people who were not aware that mother deer leave their young unattended for long periods of time, was brought in by a state fish and wildlife agent on June 14th. A fifth fawn arrived on June 15th, and was treated for a large laceration on the top of his head that had exposed part of his skull.

All five fawns were placed on a formula feeding schedule and began to gain both strength and weight, and with a little help from the PAWS staff, the three injured fawns quickly healed. The fawns had the run of a large, thickly vegetated outdoor pen, and their growth could be monitored by the ever-rising “browse-line” that they created as they munched away at leafy vegetation within their reach. By late summer they had been weaned, and their spotted fur was replaced with sleek, tawny coats. They continued to feed on an endless supply of leafy branches and other greens that were gathered by wildlife center volunteers and interns. By mid-October the deer were ready to set out on their own.

She looked at her former pen mates in the field...

She looked at her former pen mates in the field...

After the doors were opened at the release site, the deer that had been restless in her release box was the first to exit. She was somewhat stressed from the ordeal of capture and transport, and she was panting as she trotted out into the field. Next, two of the males emerged. They cautiously walked about eight feet before stopping and turning to look at one another. The two deer locked gazes for several seconds as if each was hoping the other could explain exactly what had just happened, and then they moved further out into the field. As they moved away, the third male’s head slowly emerged from his transport box. Still standing in the doorway, he looked back over his shoulder at the humans sitting on the boxes above him. After staring for a few seconds, he turned and walked away. A minute or two passed as we waited for the head of the final deer to emerge from the last transport box. What finally did emerge was not her head at all.

...and she looked at her former captors on top of the boxes

...and she looked at her former captors on top of the boxes.

I noticed movement at the door to the final transport box, and the body part that gives the Black-tailed Deer its name emerged. The hind legs followed and the deer slowly backed out of her carrier. When her head cleared the door, she seemed surprised. She turned around and looked at her former pen mates out in the field. She then turned back and looked at her former captors on top of the release boxes. After assessing them for several seconds, she again turned towards the field and trotted off to join her small herd.

The five deer gathered closely together in the field. They sniffed the air, the ground, and each other. Their ears twitched. They seemed to be trying to make a decision. One of the females must have picked up an interesting scent. She started to wander off in the direction of the river. The other deer noticed this and must have thought she was on to something. They fell in behind her, following her in a single-file line. After traveling about 30 yards, the lead female stopped and turned around. The four deer that were following her also stopped. The female looked at her followers, and they looked back at her. After a few seconds of indecision, all five deer walked back to the middle of the field.

The second attempt at following the leader

The second attempt at following the leader.

After arriving back at their starting point, the deer began to reassess their surroundings. This time one of the males broke off from the herd and began to move toward a stand of trees in the opposite direction of the river. As before, the other four deer fell into line behind this perceived leader. They followed him for about 50 yards, at which point he stopped and turned around. The followers looked at the leader, and the leader looked at the followers. Eventually, the entire herd continued on toward the trees. There no longer seemed to be an identifiable leader, rather they were moving as a coordinated unit. Noses to the ground, they faded into the tall grass, now following the lead of a scent trail that was beyond my ability to detect.

Wild animals released between November 1st and November 14th, 2005:

  • 1 American Robin
  • 1 Red-necked Grebes
  • 1 Red-tailed Hawk
  • 1 Virginia opossum
  • 1 Golden-crowned Kinglet

544 wild animals have been released since the beginning of 2005.
Thanks to all of you for helping to make these releases possible!

All rights reserved. 2005 Progressive Animal Welfare Society

A Northwest leader in protecting animals since 1967, the Progressive Animal Welfare Society (PAWS) shelters homeless animals, rehabilitates injured and orphaned wildlife, and empowers people to demonstrate compassion and respect for animals in their daily lives.