The Amazing, Ridiculous Thing You Never Knew About Deer (and how we handle it here at the Sanctuary)
Updated: Jun 1
We get a lot of visitors to the Sanctuary, and when I give my greeting speech when you first arrive, the one thing that always makes people prick up their ears, do a double-take and say "What?!" is when I get to the bit about antlers. This time of year I am quite consumed with antler-stress, so I though it might be a great time to talk ANTLERS!
Antlers drop off every year, and regrow in 90 days
Huh?! But... they are so big! Why would they do that? Do all deer do that, even reindeer and moose? Do only males grow antlers? What are antlers made of? What age does that start? When does it happen, can you predict it or is it random? Why are they different shapes? Yep, I love getting this reaction from people, because it means their brain is exploding just a little bit with interest and engagement, and that's good for you! I will answer all these questions in the next blog post (or if you come to visit!), but today I'm going to focus on the issue that antlers cause for us at the Sanctuary, and how we deal with it.
Antlers are an expression of the hormone testosterone in male deer. Antlers are released from the skull at the end of the mating season every year, and regrow to be ready for the season the following year. The males use them to fight each other for the right to mate with the local females. We do not breed our deer at the Sanctuary: in Australia they are considered feral pests and are killed if found in the wild, which is why we rescue them, so it would be irresponsible (and weird) for us to be breeding more! Antlers are not used to defend their wearers from predators (although clearly they could do a lot of damage if they were), and they are not involved in any other process of normal life for a deer. In captivity, however, deer who are familiar with humans will have no fear of using their antlers to attack a human, and will also use them as a tool to overpower their fellow deer for food or the best spot in the paddock. This is very, very dangerous for humans involved in caring for the deer, and can also result in injuries between the boys (imagine petty sibling fights with sharp weapons - not healthy, and not responsible parenting!)
So, what do we do to handle this problem?
We castrate the males!
Well, when I say 'we', I mean that we get the vet to visit, and they do it (because I am a softie who gets squeamish at blood and medical procedures, otherwise we could just put a ring around their testicles to cut off the blood supply and wait for them to fall off, as is general practice on farms with sheep and goats... 😖🤢). For deer, this must be done before the deer is about 6 months of age, to ensure that pedicle (antler base) development hasn't started. If it is done after this point, antlers may still grow but be abnormal, misshapen and unhealthy, and the deer may still retain aggression.
We have just had this year's rescue boys, Owen and Obi, castrated. They need to be sedated for the procedure, so I sit with their little heads in my lap and speak softly to them and keep my eyes away from what Dr. Malcolm is doing! I hate this part, but we are so relieved when it is done and the boys can grow up healthy, safe and non-murderous!
If we rescue a male past the six month age point and it is too late to castrate, we have procedures in place to manage them through their testosterone cycle over the year. It begins when the antlers drop at the end of the mating season (around January for the tropical deer, and September for the European deer), at which point the testosterone is low and the boys are friendly and sociable with humans: back to their 'normal personalities', as we say. The ones that like visitors are allowed back into the main paddock for cuddles and feeding, loving it when their growing antlers are tickled. They can stay in there for around 3 months, until we see the velvet at the tips of their new antlers start to peel, at which point we rotate them back down into the 'wild paddock' for their dangerous rutting season. This has to be done at just the right time, before the testosterone has fully risen, otherwise it is a very dangerous task for me to move them - usually I can just lead them with a handful of pellets while someone else distracts the other deer, but I have to feed them quickly otherwise they will try to stab me with impatience!
As we go into winter now, we have the Rusa (tropical) boys down in the bottom field for their rutting season, Little Fur (our albino fallow deer) raging by himself in the side paddock, all babies castrated, and everyone else in the middle paddock happily oblivious to my antler-stress!
Now you know why, when you visit, my final instructions are so blunt: admire the boys from a distance, don't go too close to the fence. They look cute, but those antlers will kill you!
Do you have any antler questions? Drop them below and I will answer them in my next blog post!