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.