Without a Trace

Here on our little ranch, the summer provided a predictable rhythm of deer movement. With three little fawns hidden in various areas of the property and the orchard beyond, it was common to see the mama does coming and going. They were either nursing their young, munching on browse and deer feed, or patrolling for predators. Scout, whose babies we never did see and assumed she lost them somehow at birth or just after, continued to stay with the herd. She and Ruthie often took off for long periods, even though Ruthie was nursing little Ellie.

The slough area of the orchard seemed to be the gathering spot for all of the deer by the end of August. It was at that time that we noticed all of the mamas bringing their babies out in the open more, and the little ones becoming familiar with one another. Generally, a doe brings her young out of hiding around one month of age.

Penelope and little PJ arrived early in the morning to nibble on Double Down deer feed.
Scout, who lost her babies early on, always gave the little ones a good sniff and an occasional lick on the head.
Ruthie grooms Ellie’s ears. Ears are very important to a deer’s survival, and ridding them of parasites like ticks is a necessity!

Right away, Gracie showed us what a dedicated and protective mother she was to JoJo. It was a good feeling to know our efforts in joining Gracie and JoJo had paid off. After Gracie lost her little buck fawn to an owl attack, and Ruthie could not manage the care of both Ellie and JoJo, it was a miracle that Gracie accepted JoJo as her own. But over the course of the summer, we watched JoJo flourish under Gracie’s care.

Mama Gracie and JoJo.

Ruthie, on the other hand, was still showing us what a vagabond she could be, returning to her adventurous ways not long after giving birth to twins Ellie and JoJo. I wondered, if it wasn’t for Ruthie’s ever-expanding udder filling up with milk, would she even bother returning to Ellie at all? As a result, poor little Ellie was somewhat unkempt-looking. We often observed her with hair ruffed up and full of stick tight seeds, and with ticks on her ears. This made us wonder if Ruthie’s snake bite injury might have limited her ability to groom her baby and herself.

Still, even as tiny as she was, Ellie proved to be just as resilient as her mama. She was spry and smart. Ruthie kept her hidden in the neighbor’s woolly back yard, but Ellie knew her way down to the slough, where we often saw her join the other deer in the evening hours. During the days sometimes, Ellie could be seen peering through the neighbor’s chain-linked fence. I wondered just how much of the day she spent alone over there while her mama was out galivanting around, and was always happy to see Ruthie return to feed Ellie.

Ruthie’s snake bite scars healed nicely. She manages to get good nutrition despite damage done to her jaw and lips. She’s also putting on weight which is very good!!
In spite of her limited ability with her jaw and tongue, Ruthie did her best to care for Ellie.
JoJo (left) and Ellie (right) have no idea they are sisters. Even at this early age, JoJo showed posture of being the dominant one of the two.

Penelope was the last of the mamas to bring out her tiny fawn, little PJ. Penelope was very secretive of her and PJ’s whereabouts all along, and we never did know where she had hidden her baby. But Penelope would show up near our home each day for feed and fruit and vegetables that we offered. When she finally did bring PJ around with her, we could see that she was a mirror image of her mama. Penelope had come from the far southwestern part of the state, where the whitetail deer are smaller in stature. Tiny PJ had the smallest set of ears we had ever seen on a fawn, and she tucked her tail tightly just like her mama did. They were such a cute pair to observe together.

Little PJ was never very far from her mother. With a swish of her tail, Penelope led the way on the day’s mother-daughter adventure!

In early September, summer apples and pears began to ripen and fall from our many fruit trees. Crab apples too, became a favorite snack of the deer. Chicory and clover patches also provided abundant grazing spots in the yard and deer pen. In the evenings, Forrest and I delighted in sitting at the picnic table, watching the babies run and play while the mamas kept watch and nibbled on plants and deer feed. Sometimes, after the deer retreated to the woods, Forrest and I would venture down to the slough area and watch the fawns frolic and gambol in the shallow water, while their mothers kept close watch. Eventually, each mother would lead their fawn back to the safety of hiding in the woods or orchard.

Each evening we enjoyed watching the fawns at play.

It was hard to say exactly when Ellie simply disappeared. Looking back at photos, September 9th was the last we saw Ellie with the group of mamas and fawns. Though we looked for her in the days and weeks to follow, there was no trace of her to be found. We searched the neighbor’s back yard, all through the woods, and down to the slough, but found nothing amiss. Normally, a predator will leave evidence of a kill, but we discovered no signs of death. I had to wonder if Ellie had simply yearned for more stimulation or the company of others and followed the other deer or perhaps followed a couple of wild deer we had been seeing in the area on the game cameras.

As it was when we had to take JoJo from Ruthie due to her premature birth and underdeveloped joints, ligaments, and tendons, Ruthie did not show signs of missing Ellie. Over the years, we have become familiar with a mama doe mooing pitifully, and searching for days trying to catch scent or sight of her lost baby. But we never observed that with Ruthie. It was simply as if she accepted that Ellie was gone and immediately resumed her independence, though she remained with the herd.

What was more disturbing, however, was the disappearance of Penelope. We saw her with the herd on the evening of September 27th, but she did not return with the group the next morning. We did not worry so much at first, since PJ was with the larger group and we had recently noticed the mamas taking turns babysitting each other’s fawns. But that evening, there was still no sign of Penelope. PJ continued to tag along with the others, but it was evident she was always looking for her mother to appear.

Days turned into weeks of searching and combing the property and beyond for Penelope. But we found no signs of death. It was truly too early for rut (mating season) activity, but it was possible pre-rut activity could have caused her to stray. We also wondered if instinct could have led her to head back to the area of southwestern Oklahoma where she originated. But Forrest and I both knew that, as attentive and protective a mother Penelope was to PJ, it was unlikely that Penelope would have abandoned her fawn.

Penelope was a tiny deer, but proved to be a ferocious and attentive mother. We just can’t imagine what ever became of her.
This is the last video I have of Penelope with little PJ.

Despite the hardship of losing her mother so young and being forced to be weaned a month earlier than normal, PJ is doing well with the little herd. We often see her hanging out with JoJo and Gracie. Scout and Ruthie help to look after her some days too. It is evident though, when PJ is mutually groomed by Gracie, Scout or Ruthie, she enjoys the touch and attention of a mama. It has been good to see that the little herd has taken PJ in as one of their own, and that she is doing well. We still wonder what might have happened to Penelope, and we miss her greatly.

The fruit trees offered great snacks for the girls this year!
Our friend Diane stopped by on occasion, offering carrots and other goodies to nibble on.
The last evening we saw Penelope (right front) with the herd.

Now, the autumn season is upon us and, with it, the whitetail rut has arrived. We have already observed a few bucks competing for the girls. With the adult does getting such attention, it is common to see Jojo and PJ bedded down together in the pasture, while their mamas and aunties are being pursued by local bucks. These times when the little ones are on their own, I just have to trust they know the lay of the land and are able to flee if danger presents itself.

I find myself wondering if our little herd will remain nearby, or if the rut will lead them to the river valley and beyond. Daisy deer remained here for many years, but other orphaned deer we have raised, disappeared during the rut. For a short time, we would see them, via game cameras, near the river area. After a while, however, they simply disappeared altogether, never to return. I guess it is the strong pull of instinct that eventually leads them on to the wild and free lives they were intended to live – wherever that may be. I try to take comfort in knowing this, but still, a little piece of my heart goes with them all…

JoJo has chosen to spend the day with Scout near the old river channel. We noted many days that Scout and Ruthie babysat for JoJo and PJ.
After the tornado hit, we had lots of branches for the girls to graze on. Once stripped of leaves I hauled the debris off to the burn pile.
A shady spot in the front yard is a good place for a little herd to rest a bit before heading off to the woods in the evening. Scout (rear, in front of the tree trunk), PJ (in front of Scout), JoJo (in front of PJ), Ruthie (rear and to the right of the tree trunk) and Gracie (on the right in front) enjoy resting under a small oak tree.
The picnic table in the shade of a maple tree, is another favorite place to bed down in late afternoon.
JoJo and PJ find comfort in each other’s company. JoJo is approximately three weeks older than PJ and is much larger in size.

© 2021 Day by Day the Farm Girl Way…


32 thoughts on “Without a Trace

    1. Thank you, Rudi. We’ve been please with Ruthie’s progress regarding the snake bite. There are times we see she has something stuck under her lip, unable to extract it with her tongue, which is a bit of a concern. As long as she allows us to help her with removal we do what we can to assist. It’s been a good learning experience with all that we’ve had going on here this year.

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  1. Yes, your heart goes with them. It’s so poignant. Even in reading this there’s a sorrow when one goes missing whether there are signs of danger or not, a mixed feeling hoping they enjoy nature but then they are a part of your family. Never easy to see family move on. The photos are wonderful. As we’re two weeks off from Thanksgiving, I will you a very happy one. You, Forrest, and your four-legged gang. ❤

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    1. Thank you so much, Paulette. It was so much harder with Daisy deer, our first experience rehabilitating orphaned deer. I’m thankful to know so much more with each experience. This year was a huge crash course in learning with Ruthie’s snake bite, and having four yearlings as mothers. As you noted, it’s never easy to watch the progression of their lives – joy is often accompanied by heartbreak.

      I wish you a wonderful Thanksgiving as well. It’s a rare occasion here to enjoy the autumn colors here as usually weather ruins the stunning display. This year, we’re seeing a lot of beauty. I’m reveling in the beauty here – it’s lovely to find happiness and contentment right where we are. Take care, and enjoy the holiday! ❤

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    1. Aw, thank you, Dale! It’s truly a wonderful way to document our experiences and share with others. There’s something deeply satisfying about being good stewards of the land and animals.

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  2. The kind of attachment you develop with your deer has its relative downsides: mysterious disappearances, deaths, illness, and so on. That’s no reason to refuse attachment, of course. I even became attached to a possum who wandered through on a nightly basis, until it disappeared. I wondered for months what had happened, and assumed the worst — until it showed up again, followed by a tennis-ball sized baby possum. Clearly, there are at least two possums around, and ‘mine’ made a friend along the way — but now they’re gone again, and all I can do is wonder — and wait to see if they show up again. It’s the way of the world. Not everything is knowable, but what we do know is invaluable.

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    1. “Assuming the worst” is something I’ve tinkered with a lot in this work! For years I stayed focused on coyotes as the major predator in our area, and blamed them for any death I found in the woods. I know better now, and have been convinced by watching game camera video, that coyotes are not the threat I thought they were. We’ve seen footage of adult deer running off coyotes, and most times they just observe a coyote pass by. I’m thankful for so many experiences with wildlife. Punkin the squirrel also educated us. Wildlife is crazy resilient. I realize how ignorant I used to be.

      What a lovely observance… a opossum with a baby! You know when I was looking over the years of photos I had of Punkin the squirrel, I never realized how many times she was pregnant or nursing when she came by. I wonder how much she populated the area with babies over her life? Early on I worried when she disappeared for two or three months. Later I understood she was busy being a mother. Observing her over the years, we learned so much about life in the wild. Heartache and all, there is much to be thankful for in doing this work.

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    1. I wish I didn’t get so overwhelmed thinking about a book. I love writing and documenting about life here, but putting it together in a book sounds like a giant project. Then again, perhaps it would be a fun and interesting endeavor. I appreciate your encouraging words.

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  3. The love and care you both give to the deer you have been “entrusted” with can sure take piece of your heart like every foster chin that has crossed my door… but at least I know those chin are in loving hands after they leave me… you and Forrest are amazing folks! I’m proud to say I know you!

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    1. Aw, thank you, Lynn! It’s very much the same though, as far as doing all we can to help and assist animals. Whether it’s taking on wild things, or domestic animals, we do our best to help them along. I’m so happy we got to know each other years ago. Funny how even though I’m not fostering Chin anymore, we’re both still providing loving care to those hairy critters (and feathered and what not!) who need us. Thanks for all that you do, Lynn! ❤

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  4. I admire your continuation of activities, that, to me, I see only another heart hit once they leave/disappear without a trace and no answers to be had – sigh – after reading this post, I once again believe, my hard stance on ‘let the wild things be wild with no interference from me other than fence out/or protect my own boundaries best as I can, may have more to do with my avoidance of getting attached, than because of any laws (no feed wildlife! abounds here, on many fronts, though no one cares I let the turkeys ‘graze’ on my unkempt landscape not entirely fenced out – :)) I seriously don’t know how you do it – – I’m missing the brother/sister calico feral cats from spring 2020 litter, that have disappeared from my place in the past few months – I HOPE it’s because so many found a home here, they’ve wiped out the rodent population – one long hair white one can still be viewed, once in awhile and, sans closer inspection, appears to be female – – perhaps she and her offspring will continue with the rodent free services I’ve enjoyed ‘having’ so much here, over the past few years – – but still – I miss seeing the feral cats from the past – 😀

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    1. All wildlife comes and goes… I’m always happy to see them return at some point. It’s just as disturbing to find body parts on a hike or bunny fir or bird feathers askew in the grass while mowing. Predators abound here, so we’re used to death. Like you, I no longer feed the birds unless conditions are extremely harsh (like last year’s two weeks of Siberian temperatures). Feeding seems to give the predators easy pickings. We try to make the best decisions based on what we are dealing with. I’m sure we make mistakes sometimes.

      We’ve been seeing a lot of feral cats this year. Just today on a buggy ride near the slough we saw a big and unusual-looking cat perched on a downed pecan tree. Letting the pecan orchard go wild seems to appeal to all sorts of critters – even cats!

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  5. It seems wrong that they would just disappear without a trace. I’m so sorry. You write so well, Lori, I can just feel the connection you have with your deer family. Sending you very best wishes.

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    1. Thank you, Ardys. We’ve looked far and wide for Penelope. It’s just a mystery I guess. The only thing that makes sense is that we do hear they occasionally visit the park, where they must cross Park Road. It could be she was hit by a vehicle, and picked up by the county. We’ll never know. I am thankful that the other girls have accepted little PJ into the herd and are caring for her. She’s held her own, and though a tiny deer like her mama, she’s got spunk and is a toughie!

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  6. Quite a deer sanctuary you have! Most of the fawns here are pretty big now, but I noticed a couple of very small ones a couple of weeks ago by the trail. If I go to to town at night, I have to drive very slowly down the street close to the trail because there are usually deer along the street. I see the one with the twins quite often in the yard and pasture. They are almost as big as their mother now. Thanks for sharing!

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    1. I’m glad to hear you are one to slow down for the deer/wildlife. I do that too. In September there is an area on a busy highway about 15 miles from here where the sulpher butterflies cross in their migration journey. I slow way down, but most people don’t. It’s difficult to see all of the dead butterflies that don’t make it. It’s a beautiful sight to see so many butterflies crossing. I wish people were kinder about sharing the landscape, instead of continuing their hurried trip from point A to B.

      We love where we live. Just yesterday I saw Scout being chased by two nice bucks. Too bad I was too busy trying to keep from being “runned over” and didn’t capture it on video. Those hooves were pounding and all three were speeding like I’ve never seen. Never a dull moment here!

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  7. What a bummer to read about the vanishing of the deer. I love reading about your compassionate caring and love for the wildlings but I am relatively certain that each time one disappears, it takes a toll on your emotions. Perhaps there are other predators such as an occasional cougar passing through. I even thought that maybe someone is trapping young deer and taking them to another area. I hope and pray that all the rest remain safe and make it through hunting season. The photos and the video are wonderful.

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    1. Thank you, Yvonne. I’ve been doing this since 2011. After a while, your heart hardens a bit to the sadness that nature reveals at times. It was very hard to watch little PJ look for her mother that month after Penelope disappeared. But, it’s also heartwarming to see Ruthie, Scout or Gracie give PJ licks and mutual groom with her. She’s managed well having been weaned a month too soon, and we’re thankful for the Double Down feed to help keep her with plenty of protein. She’s done well with Jojo as a co-hort, and with the three aunties caring for her.

      I had heard that someone was killing geese and a couple of beavers down at the park (just 4 blocks from here). I hope Penelope wasn’t a victim of such a crime. I’ll never understand people who are killers.

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  8. Hi Lori, I hope the remaining members of the deer herd thrive in 2022. Although you are used to animals under your care moving on, I am sure there are times when you just wish they would send you a note or postcard.

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    1. Ah, Margaret, you understand well. It would be nice to know how our orphaned critters have managed and some kind of communication would be nice… but alas, it is not the way of wild things. I feel good just knowing they had a good upbringing and we did our best to give them what they needed at the time. It will be interesting to see who ventures off and who stays in 2022.

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  9. I admire your ability to transcend the disappointments that come with raising the orphans and seeing them go their own ways. I could never do that and would be a neurotic wreck worrying about them every time they disappeared for some days and eventually forever. I didn’t read all the comments so don’t know if a hunter was considered but the no trace of a predatory killing made me think of that. It has to be hard to not develop too strong an attachment, especially with those who have needed more than just nurturing.As you’ve said, a little piece of each remains forever.

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