For Heaven's Sake Animal Rescue and Rehabilitation

Claudia Supensky feeds a fawn formula at For Heaven's Sake Animal Rescue and Rehabilitation in this July 2013 file photo. 

‘Habituated:’ Officials Vow to Return For 11 Remaining Deer Deemed Too Tame to Be Wild After Tip From Former Volunteer

For the past eight years, Claudia and David Supensky have spent nearly all of their waking hours patiently nursing injured and ill wildlife back to health in preparation for eventual return to the wild. 

So when state wildlife officials showed up unannounced at their home-based For Heaven’s Sake Wildlife Rescue and Rehabilitation Center in Rochester last Thursday and began shooting fawn deer with tranquilizer darts, the couple was understandably distraught.

Deer at For Heavens Sake

Sedated deer are seen in the back of a trailer the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife used to transport the animals that were later killed following a raid at For Heaven’s Sake Animal Rescue in Rochester last month. 

Three of those fawns and one elk calf were euthanized by the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife last week after they were deemed to be too friendly to humans, and the future of the remaining 11 fawns at the facility currently hangs in the balance.

“It just broke my heart,” said Claudia Supensky, describing her reaction to seeing a photo on Facebook of the young ungulates unconscious in the back of a WDFW truck on their way to be killed. “It was the most horrible feeling in the world because we had no control.”

According to the WDFW, a former volunteer at For Heaven’s Sake submitted a tip to the department that the deer and elk being cared for at the facility had been exposed to too much human contact, which caused them to become “habituated,” or “imprinted,” to the presence of people. State law dictates that rescued wildlife that become too accustomed to humans can be used for educational purposes but are not allowed to be released back into the wild. 

For Heaven's Sake Animal Rescue and Rehabilitation

Fawns are seen in this June 2017 file photo taken at the For Heaven's Sake animal rescue in Rochester. 

“The department licenses wildlife rehabilitators to prepare sick, injured and orphaned animals for release back into the wild, but those animals have virtually no chance of surviving if they become habituated to humans,” said Eric Gardner, head of the WDFW Wildlife Program, in a press release. Gardner added that habituated wildlife can also be a danger to the public, and cited an instance in Davenport last month where two people were gored by a habituated buck deer.

However, the Supenskys wholeheartedly refute the claims of the former volunteer and the WDFW. On Monday, Claudia Supensky pointed out that over the past eight years, For Heaven’s Sake has rehabilitated close to 200 deer that were successfully released to the wild. She said they’ve never changed their practices over the years and they’ve also never failed to revert a deer back to its wild nature.

Supensky also took exception with a quote attributed to her by other news outlets that was widely publicized last week that appeared to read as an admission of wrongdoing. 

“It said that I said the fawns are too friendly to be released and it’s completely the opposite,” said Supensky. “I said, ‘Fish and Wildlife said they are too friendly to be released,’ and I know that they’re not.’”

For Heaven's Sake Animal Rescue and Rehabilitation

A fawn gets a whiff of the camera lens at the deer enclosure at For Heaven's Sake Animal Rescue and Rehabilitation in Rochester in this Thursday, July 11, 2014, Chronicle file photo. 

Supensky explained that she, her husband and their assorted volunteers follow the same protocol with each young ungulate that’s brought to the facility, taking care to limit the animals’ exposure to up-close human interaction. However, when young fawns and calves lose their mothers, they require milk and thus must be bottle-fed by humans for a time once they arrive at the rescue center. Supensky says that once the animals learn what a bottle is, workers begin feeding them through a bottle rack in a barn that provides a visual barrier between the workers and the animals in order to begin the separation process. 

Once the deer are weaned, Supensky says they are let out into the back acreage at the rehabilitation center where in the past they were allowed to overwinter and “wild up” before being released into the real wild in the springtime.

“It takes a while for them to wild up and be ready to release after they’ve been weaned,” said Supensky, who noted that most of the deer in her care are, or were, between three and four months old. Despite the young age of the deer fawns, Supensky says that the WDFW was adamant the deer should have been released by the end of September.

“We’ve never done that. Our protocol is to put them on our back acreage where they never see people and they can learn to be wild over the winter months,” explained Supensky. “Then we have a real difficult time rounding them up in the spring, but it’s worth it because we can release them and they can survive in the wild.”

Gardner said that Oregon state law stipulates a specific date for rescued deer to be released but noted that Washington has no such law. 

“This practice is a little unusual,” said Gardner, who does not believe that research backs up the Suspenskys’ claims that overwintering deer better prepares them for the wild. But, he added, “It was not a violation of Washington state law by any means.”

This year though, based on the word of what Suspensky calls a disgruntled and misled former volunteer, the WDFW decided things weren’t up to snuff. A regularly scheduled inspection in August found no problems at the facility, but a follow-up inspection in late September, triggered by that tip from the former volunteer, is said to have revealed “significant problems with human habituation,” according to a WDFW press release.

Supsenky claims that the WDFW already had their minds made up when they showed up for additional inspections, and she fears that despite her best efforts the remaining fawns are likely doomed.

“When this had happened they were still taking bottles and they’re not going to look like they’re very wild when they’re on a bottle,” said Supensky, who noted that the deer had been living in the enclosed woods on the couple’s property for about two weeks before the WDFW showed up with dart guns last Thursday.

“The deer didn’t even come out of the woods to greet us and her statement to us was, ‘It doesn’t matter if I see them I already know they are habituated,’” said Supensky, who was quoting Patricia Thompson, the WDFW on-site inspector. 

Supensky claims that Thompson lured a calf elk and a tiny fawn with the help of an apple during Thursday’s roundup effort, but noted that the rest of the ungulates fled into the woodline when wildlife officers approached. 

“They were unable to catch them because they are not habituated,” said Supensky. 

That’s when WDFW wildlife officers began hunting the deer on the enclosed property using dart guns to capture the fleeing animals. 

“They took them away and said they would be back within the next few days to take the rest,” said Supensky on Monday as she nervously waited for the second round of the raid to commence. “The fact that they’re not giving us these extra months. I just don’t understand. She’d rather kill them than give them these extra months.”

A press release sent out by the WDFW on Monday was titled, “WDFW evaluates deer at rescue facility after euthanizing four habituated animals,” but Gardner admitted that no additional visits or actions have been made in regard to the facility since Thursday’s raid. He also claimed that there “are no solid plans” for a return visit. 

In a conversation with The Chronicle on Monday, Gardner said he hopes to be able to “engage in a dialogue” with the Supenskys in an effort to find a way forward that does not require the euthanization of the remaining 11 deer. With a tinge of irony, he noted that Washington State University is interested in taking in six or seven friendly female fawns for use in a study. Gardner noted that any male fawns would need to exhibit strong wild instinct in order to warrant consideration for release.

Gardner did not sound optimistic about the chance that any of the deer would wind up released to the wild, but noted, “We’re at least hopeful that some of them will find placement with WSU.”

Gardner also expressed skepticism about Supensky’s assertion that the standard operating procedure for deer and elk has never changed since the facility opened in 2010.

“I would not say that they’ve been out of compliance, nor would I say that the protocol has changed. What I would say is that that’s not the standards and it wasn’t expected. I guess they didn’t communicate their plan very well,” said Gardner. “It took the inside information to essentially let us know that there was a problem there.”

Supensky says she doesn’t understand how she could have been more upfront. She has always opened her doors to regular state inspections and even brings in her own veterinarian once a week to check on the health of the animals under her care.

Jaclyn Fraser has volunteered as the veterinarian at For Heaven’s Sake since last February. She says that the Supenskys are always quick to treat animals with illnesses or injuries, and the facility is kept clean with daily chores.

“All the animals are well taken care of and everyone works hard around the clock. Claudia and her husband live on the property and I know she is up until 1 or 2 o’clock in the morning sometimes taking care of the animals,” said Faser. “From my perspective I feel like all of the animals are in a good place to be rehabilitated and released. I feel that the work they do is really good work.”

Claudia Supensky noted that when her facility was first red-flagged by the WDFW in September she was told that a wildlife biologist would be summoned to make a determination on the condition of the deer. She says that assessment never happened prior to the WDFW showing up to confiscate the deer, and she’s worried that laws may have been broken during the WDFW’s removal efforts.

Gardner quickly shot down that idea. 

“I know Claudia is concerned about a due process law but it has more to do with the permits than the animals themselves,” said Gardner, who speculated that too many volunteers were allowed to interact with the deer. “The deer don’t belong to the rehab. They belong to the state of Washington.”

In a press release, Gardner described the Supenskys as caring people who work hard on behalf of the animals placed in their care and confirmed that this is the first time the couple has been in violation of rules habituating wildlife at their facility. That same press release noted that For Heaven’s Sake has already been stripped of their license to rescue and rehabilitate ungulates in the future.

Supensky says she feels betrayed by the state and doesn’t understand why the WDFW would take such draconian actions following the first complaint their facility has received since it was opened eight years ago.

“This has been so, so upsetting. I can’t even begin to describe how upsetting it’s been,” said Supensky. “We’ve never, ever, had anyone complain to Fish and Wildlife before in all the years that we’ve done this. It’s been a shock to us.”

Supensky claims that the former volunteer who reported For Heaven’s Sake to authorities was out to get them and staged photographs of animals being bottle-fed in order to drum up concern. Supensky said the woman even tried to recruit other volunteers to join her cause. 

“Why Fish and Wildlife would take the word of a 21-year-old campaigner over ours after all these years is really disappointing and hurtful,” she said.

Suspensky says that they typically bottle feed fawns and calves for about four months, or until their spots disappear, which is typically less time than mothers nurse their babies in the wild. She added that she obtained a photograph last week that showed an elk cow still nursing its calf in the wild. 

“So we don’t feel like we’re doing anything wrong by feeding the bottles that long,” said Supensky. “There’s a lot facets to this whole thing but the deer are the one who are paying the price for it, and that’s not fair.”

With so much up in the air right now, Supensky says she is hoping that public outcry will help to save the deer that are still hiding in her backwoods. She envisions a change of heart at the WDFW or possibly an injunction by the governor as she waits for the WDFW to make its next move. 

“We’ve had these fawns since they were little babies and we were doing right just like we always have, without any complaints, without any incidents, and then they come here and they take our deer,” said Supensky. “To me, I don’t care if they take my license. I’m focused on saving these deer who can still be released. And if I never take in another deer, it will be worth it if I can save these.”

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(17) comments

Cinebarbarian

Even if the deer are too people friendly now, I don't understand why the facility can't be allowed to chase them around with a dog and get them people shy. Seems like that would only take a few days that to give them the people fear they should have. Overall, I'm neither impressed with the WDFW or their kill first tactics.

national

Nice to see the taxpayer-funded agency charged with protecting wildlife does so by killing them with a mentality straight out of the Vietnam War: "It became necessary to destroy the deer in order to save them." Way to go, WDFW...you're great stewards.

Sportssterhd

It happens every day. USFWS into killing the wildlife now. Cyanide bombs Usfws puts out to kill wolves coyotes what they consider pest. They almost killed a young boy not before killing his dog. Google this Usfws and dnr kills wildlife it will surprise you.

Cherilar

How can an agency that says they are protecting deer kill them? It's wrong to kill these animals for the reason given. I believe the owner of the Sanctuary and think it's wrong for beautiful animals to be killed rather than given a chance to survive in the wild! Where is the over sight in this state. Someone needs to start a petition to draw attention to the matter!

WaWahine

These government agencies are getting to be Gestapo like.

Aquila596

As much as baby animals tug on everyone's heart strings, it definitely looks like this facility had no business rehabbing wild animals. Photos in other articles show animals that have clearly been habituated if not imprinted. If the rehabber really had the animal's best interest at heart they would have gone to extreme measures to prevent that from happening. Unfortunately too many of these facilities cannot resist the urge to treat the animals like pets and the animal's end up paying the price. The best thing that could come out of this would be stricter standards and guidelines for rehab facilities and more active oversight to prevent these situations from developing in the first place.

Outragedcitizen

8 years of successful rehab and release...these were young animals, just off the bottle, learning to wild up....they were never given that chance...did you happen to notice how small these fawn were? Most of the deer scattered....proof the process is working.... The deer are never treated as pets, I've been there and seen it, have you? That's why they've been so successful...FOR EIGHT YEARS...

Bob Bozarth

WDFW is out of control like other state agencies. The Washington State Governor appoints directors to these agencies such as Jim Unsworth. Washington has not had a conservative governor in 32 years and now we are seeing the results. Government overreach has gone over the top, this is one small example. It is time we consider introducing legislation to implement an electoral college in our state, it will bring us back to the Republic our founders intended. Or we can just let status quo continue and allow King County to choose our destiny.

glenn398

Sounds like normal government operations which comes in like a big bully and doesn't matter what the facts are just does as they please. Am sure they will be back for the rest of the animals even though they refuted the claim as government as we well know are famous for lying.

SMH

We hope the Chronicle keeps investigating this situation and brings more facts to light. It is astonishing that the WDFW would take such drastic action after such a vague and unsubstantiated complaint. Sure they should investigate any complaint, but one visit to the center while the fawns are still being bottle fed does not constitute an investigation. The WDFW says the animals were too friendly to be released, but the center was not planning to release them for another 4-5 months! They could have further assessed the animals at that time and then killed them if they felt they were too friendly! And it doesn't sound as if the WDFW followed any protocols (which they surely must have) in investigating this matter since they didn't actually investigate anything. Sounds like an abuse of power. And the few photographs that are in the media showing the fawns bottle-feeding, etc. certainly do not prove that the animals are too friendly to be eventually released back into the wild. For Heaven Sake has an excellent reputation and has worked closely with the State since it opened. Why wouldn't the WDFW work with them on this matter? There are so few wildlife rehab centers in this state. Why strip this facility of it's license without a solid reason? The animals are the ones who will suffer.

SMH

Upon further reflection, we wonder if the action by the WDFW is a personal attack against the wildlife center. Is the person who filed the complaint connected in any way with someone at the Dept? Does someone in the Dept have personal issues with the owners of the rehab center? Just a thought as it might help explain the irrational behavior of the WDFW.

Shoecker

First a dog that was too dangerous now deer and elk that are too friendly. One thing that both these cases seem to have in common is overzealous bureaucrats that swoop in and take action without really trying to find out if there is a problem. Why not sit down with the owners and try to get to the bottom of this and find out if there really is a problem and coming up with a solution with all parties involved. The animals weren’t about to be released so there was no real threat to public safety. Seems like this place has operated for years without any real problems. Mr. Gardner now wants to sit down with the owners and engage in dialogue. Too bad he didn’t do that in the first place. Now lawyers are already involved which makes sitting down and having dialogue way more difficult and complicated not to mention animals have been killed which will make it much harder to establish any real trust. Seems like we have a long way to go as a society in conflict resolution.

Cinebarbarian

There's one line in this story that really gripes me, that might enplane the WDFW attitude displayed here.

“I know Claudia is concerned about a due process law but it has more to do with the permits than the animals themselves,” said Gardner, who speculated that too many volunteers were allowed to interact with the deer. “The deer don’t belong to the rehab. They belong to the state of Washington.”

The "State of Washington" is a government entity, as in "these are the king's deer". What is more accurate to say is "The People of Washington State". The State of Washington may be the ones making all the millions of dollars selling the rights to kill them and other big game animals, but these animals along with the rest of Washington's Wildlife belong to the People of Washington State. Perhaps if the WDFW gets back to acting like a Steward of our wildlife and not the iron fisted owner, we'll see a more agreeable outcome.

Outragedcitizen

Due diligence was not done!!! These were young fawn and a baby elk....just off the bottle....still associating people with food, in the early stages of wilding up, too young to be released....lured to their deaths with an apple...Patricia Thompson with Fish and Wildlife suggested they be released in Fall...How is it that she or Eric Gardner would think releasing them In Fall would be a good idea? Where's the common sense?

What I don't understand is why there isn't more of a sense of partnership between the State and these rehabbers? They should be supporting and working with these selfless people who are doing what the State doesn't have the time or resources to do...

Unless and until, the State is required to address rehab concerns with other rehabbers, wildlife biologists and veterinarians, as suggested, this could happen again...

Unless and until, Fish and Wildlife agents are required to understand the wilding up protocol, this could happen again...

This should never happen again...

I have to ask, if this "intern" was so concerned, why didn't she address those concerns with the For Heaven's Sake director?? If she really had the best interest of the animals at heart, why not take the time to do that? Instead, she used her time crafting all manner of photographs to bolster her claims...time that could have been better spent looking for a solution. If a solution was even warranted...8 years of successful release...

Patricia Thompson's behavior reeks of ego and the fact that Fish and Wildlife allowed this to happen, reeks of mismanagement...

State Officials need to do a better job!! Why take the word of a barely legal adult without investigation. I have known the Stupensky’s the hole time they have had their Rescue Facility, and have even brought them injured wildlife. They would NEVER, do anything to harm or prohibit any animal to become tame. Even though I have inquired about coming and taking a peak at some of the animals. I was always turned down, because it was for the safety of the animals.
I suggest the overpaid wildlife experts, need to go back to class and update their education! When they have to tranquilize bottle fed deer hiding in the woods, and the claim that they have been too imprinted, I think the experts need to brush up on their education so they can make a better informed decision.

Rspencer

The game department is wanting to kill animals that have human contact then they have to go to Ryderwood and kill all the wild life for a twenty mile circle..
The fine people that live there have hand the deer and elk for as many years that I can remember.. They have even had a couple of bear cubs feed through the winter.
Our game department is trying to kill off the Elk population in our south west side of our state killing over 1500 in the last two years.

AnmlAdvct

It's a shame that the very department that is supposed to be helping to protect the animals is the one responsible for their destruction. Unfortunately, that is the culture at this department. They didn't even try to protect the animals and work with the sanctuary to iron out their concerns. So quick to just destroy the animals. Absolutely ridiculous and appalling. For WDFW to have even contemplated such severe actions, there should have a much more intensive investigation and they should have been working extensively with the operators of the rescue on their concerns. A plan of action could have been developed, not just the mindless killing. And did WDFW disclose what happened to the bodies of the destroyed animals? They should be able to show the exact area they buried them, or paperwork proving what they did with the bodies. I suggest that people submit public disclosure requests regarding all communication about this situation.

WDFW operates under a very large conflict of interest. They are tasked with protecting and managing wildlife, yet a large part of their funding comes from selling licenses to kill the animals they are supposed to be protecting and managing. They promote the selling of licenses heavily, and part of the agency's mission is to promote recreational hunting opportunities. So how can an agency that gets funding for selling licenses to kill be trusted to honestly manage and protect those same animals.
Just to respond to an earlier comment, the Director is not appointed by the Governor, he is hired by their Commission. So you can't blame our current Governor or previous Governors for the culture and hipocrasy within WDFW.
WDFW is also undergoing some significant internal cultural challenges including sexual harassment. This department needs a major overhaul in what their mission and culture is about. There is very little accountability to the public.

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