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Endangered deer dies of unusual mass at biology institute

By Katie Demeria

An Eld's deer at the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute in Front Royal had to be humanely euthanized earlier this month after she developed issues in her hooves.

Eld's deer are native to Thailand and Burma and are roughly the same size as common white tailed deer, according to Supervisory Biologist of Ungulates Dolores Reed. Reed said there are currently fewer Eld's deer in the wild than there are Giant Panda.

The nine-year-old Rachel started exhibiting symptoms of lameness near the beginning of April, Reed said.

Biologists noticed Rachel was lame and sedated her in order to x-ray her hooves. They found one of her toes was broken within the hoof.

"We ended up having to amputate that toe because we were afraid of an infection," Reed said. "She was recovering well, but then when she became lame on her other leg, she was by herself, and we had no explanation on how that happened."

The second exam revealed that two other toes were actually disintegrating within the hooves, Reed said.

"That many foot problems in any hoof animal is pretty bad -- you can't do a whole lot after that," she said.

The necropsy revealed an internal mass causing the issues in Rachel's hooves. Reed said it was like a "septic infection going through her whole body."

"We've never seen anything like that here before," she added.

The other deer -- 14 females and nine males -- do not seem to have been impacted by similar issues, so the staff hopes Rachel's was a singular incident.

The remaining herd will continue to be used to research potential breeding techniques that could increase the deer's native population.

The institute works closely with a facility in Thailand to artificially inseminate deer. There are three subspecies of Eld's deer, according to Reed, and the institute's herd is the most common of the three.

The hope is that through artificial insemination, more deer belonging to the rare subspecies can be born in the Front Royal facility.

Reed said the biology institute has had one fawn successfully born through artificial insemination. Deer born at the institute, like Rachel, are slowly introduced to human contact with a few minutes of handling every day for the first 30 days of their lives to keep them calm.

"The population in this country is sort of a reservoir, or a safeguard, so if something happens over there we will still have these," Reed said.

While the Thailand facility is working to reintroduce some to the wild, Reed said a biologist from the institute recently reported that a pocket of the deer living in the wild has disappeared.

"Part of the decline is of course habitat destruction, but when the males are in velvet -- when they're growing their antlers -- their antlers are valued as an aphrodisiac on the Asian black market," Reed said.

The species is also facing issues from ivory hunters such as those hurting the wild elephant population, she added.

Contact staff writer Katie Demeria at 540-465-5137 ext. 155, or kdemeria@nvdaily.com

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