MILL SPRING — Summer may be vacation time for most folks, but not for Polk County wildlife rehabilitator Billie Garrett.
Garrett is a veterinarian nurse who spends every waking hour outside of work caring for baby deer that have been injured or orphaned.
Garrett started Silver Creek Fawn Rescue in 2011, the year she married her husband, Jarvis, and is one of only 19 primary licensed fawn rehabilitators across the state. The next nearest one is two hours away.
With 17 bleating mouths to feed, the Garretts don’t get a lot of free time together, much less vacation time during the fawning season between May and December. Three weeks ago, Jarvis flew to New York for a wedding while Billie stayed home with her babies.
“I see my wife for about 30 minutes a day,” Jarvis said, standing outside the barn he constructed for his wife to feed 2- to 4-week-old fawns before they’re introduced into a larger fenced-in enclosure with grass and shrubs.
“I tell him it’s only for a few months,” Billie said, as she bottle-fed four fawns simultaneously Thursday after a full day working at Bonnie Brae Veterinary Hospital in Columbus.
Roughly 75 percent of the fawns currently under Billie’s care didn’t need to be there, the Garretts say. Most were picked up by well-intentioned, but naïve people who assumed the fawns were abandoned because no mother was in sight.
“I had someone call me the other day,” Billie said. “They said, ‘Oh my gosh, there’s an albino one in my backyard — I’m going to bring it to you.’ I said, ‘No, you’re going to steal it from its mom.’ That’s the main thing for me: when you take it, the momma’s going to be looking for that baby. She’s going to be crying, she’s going to be stressed out looking for it.”
Wildlife officials say removing fawns who are hidden by their mothers in grass and brush not only hurts their chances of survival, but depletes resources necessary to care for fawns that actually need help: those attacked by dogs, hit by cars or injured by barbed wire.
“It’s better to just leave them alone,” said Wildlife Officer Toby Jenkins of the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission. “Come back in 24 hours and check, but any sooner is going to prevent the momma deer from coming around.”
Billie Garrett’s day begins at 4 a.m., milking five goats that provide sustenance for the fawns under her care. The couple used to buy a special formula from Illinois designed to mimic deer milk, but at $110 a bucket and $70 shipping, goat milk became a fiscal necessity.
After feeding the six youngest fawns first, she moves to the 70-by-40-foot enclosure to bottle-feed 11 others. Jarvis built his wife a feeder that can hold four bottles so she can feed all of the fawns and get to work by 7:30 a.m. At lunchtime, she returns for another feeding.
“It used to take me 30 minutes, but it’s probably going to take me an hour and a half once we move these into (the enclosure) with the other ones,” Billie said.
She does three loads of towel laundry a day for bedding, washes bottles and nipples, then passes out around 10 p.m. after finishing the evening feeding.
Although the Garretts haven’t tallied up the full costs of their rescue operation, state officials estimate it costs about $600 to rehabilitate one fawn. Billie started with two deer her first year, released nine fawns into the wild in 2013 and took in 21 deer babies this year — without any funding help from the state.
Jenkins, who has covered Polk County for 18 years as a game warden, has watched Billie take in fawns from Buncombe, Madison, Henderson and Polk counties, as well as upstate South Carolina.
“I’ve contacted all of our biologists in the state and tried to get her some support, and we just don’t have any funding for it,” Jenkins said. “We have a lot of deer in the state, and I guess they feel they can’t put money into something that’s not endangered.”
The Garretts rely on the generosity of family, friends and donors to help them care for the fawns. Billie’s stepdad, Jerry Nelon, donated all the building materials for the enclosure. Her sister loaned her a goat to get started with milk production, and Jarvis’ father allows the fawns to be released on his 100-acre property nearby.
“It’s rewarding being able to release them,” Billie Garrett said. “On the backside of the property, I still have four or five fawns I haven’t seen in person in six months, but they’re on camera. They’re growing and have (antler) nubs right now.”
Though her permit requires Billie to release all her fawns by Dec. 1, she firmly believes they’re not “really releasable until they’re 6 months old. In the wild, they follow their moms for two years.”
The Garretts hope to raise enough money to build a 10-acre enclosure suitable for releasing the fawns into a safe area where they can begin to acclimate to wild living, learning to fend for themselves and develop a healthy suspicion of humans.
“We don’t want them to come up to us after they’re released,” said Jarvis. “It’s good for them to be skittish.”
An avid deer hunter, Billie Garrett doesn’t sentimentalize the animals under her care. She realizes death is inevitable in nature, but her love of whitetails drives her to save any fawn she can from unnecessary suffering.
“I feel like I’m giving back, too,” she said. “We deer hunt for our dog food. So we have to put back at least six deer a year for my two dogs. If you’re a hunter, you know when you have to take some of the population. You get too many does, or too many ones that have small horns or look skinny, and you know you have to take them out to better the herd.”
Many of the fawns Billie rescues come in through the animal hospital, where they’re often treated pro bono by her boss, Dr. Iain Fitch. Such was the case with a severely deformed “pie-bald” baby that arrived covered in maggots, weighing only three pounds.
“They brought him in and said, ‘What is this?’” said Billie. “His front feet were completely backward, his back feet were flipped over. He was dwarfed, with a hunch in his back, everything. But we splinted all his legs and he was released this last year. We still see him occasionally.”
Silver Creek Fawn Rescue is accepting donations that the Garretts will put toward fencing in an enclosure for acclimating released fawns to the wild, as well as food, bleach, laundry detergent and other supplies. Checks can be mailed to Bonnie Brae Animal Hospital, attn. Billie, 155 Shuford Rd, Columbus, NC 28722.