Former Marine has a soft spot in his heart for baby deer
JACKSON — Based on an old photo that appeared in Time magazine, John Wilson used to be a very tough guy. In the picture, he is crossing a stream while carrying a rocket launcher on his shoulder during the Vietnam War.
A former Marine, Wilson is 82 now, and he still has a rugged look. But underneath that flinty exterior beats a kind heart.
Wilson, who also fought in the Korean War, is a registered wildlife rehabilitator with the S.C. Department of Natural Resources. Assisted by his wife, Sharon, he works with baby deer, which are called fawns.
“They're usually born from the middle of May until the end of July,” Wilson said. “We care for about eight to 12 each year, and we get them anywhere from the time they are 2- or 3-days-old up to 3- or 4-weeks-old.”
Some of the fawns are injured or ill, and some are alone because their mothers have died or been killed.
“They are a lot like newborn baby humans,” Wilson said. “You have to sterilize their bottles, fix their formula and mix it just right.”
Wilson usually feeds the fawns a product known as milk replacer, but the sick ones might receive milk from a neighbor's goat because he believes it helps them recover.
“You start off by feeding them four times a day, and when they get to be 5- or 6-weeks-old, you drop it to three times a day,” Wilson said. “Later, you feed them only once or twice a day because they start eating grass.”
As they get older, the deer learn to enjoy cracked corn, sweet feed and Calf-Manna, which is a supplement.
The Department of Natural Resources allows Wilson to keep the animals until they are a year old. Then he must release them back into the wild.
“The Savannah River Site property borders my property in the back, and I have permission to let them go there,” Wilson said.
Most leave willingly, but some hang around for a while. Occasionally, one has become so tame that its adjustment to freedom is a struggle.
“I know it will walk up to a hunter, put its nose on the barrel of a gun and want to be fed,” Wilson said.
That's one reason why his menagerie of ducks, dogs, geese, cats, fish and chickens also includes seven permanent deer residents. Wilson received permits from the Department of Natural Resources to keep those former fawns in his fenced yard. Among them is John Boy, who is Sharon Wilson's favorite.
“When he was a baby, he was very attached to me and I got very attached to him,” she said.
In the case of 15-year-old Shelby, John Wilson decided not to set her free because she has a piebald coat (with lots of white) that would make her especially attractive to hunters.
“She was born club-footed, and she was in a cast for about 12 weeks,” he said.
Wilson has rehabilitated and raised fawns for about 20 years, but he doesn't think about giving it up even though it's time-consuming and can be heartbreaking when a young deer fails to thrive.
“When you see one grow up that would have died of starvation or neglect, it makes you feel like you've accomplished something,” he said.
Sharon Wilson also remains enthusiastic.
“We have so much love in us for animals that it keeps us going,” she said. “I love on the babies all the time, and they give me love back. It's very rewarding.”
Dede Biles is a general assignment reporter for the Aiken Standard and has been with the newspaper since January 2013. A native of Concord, N.C., she graduated from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.