BRAINERD, Minn.-Eight deer ventured out onto the ice of South Long Lake southeast of Brainerd on Saturday morning. Three fell through the ice and died and four were able to walk off the lake on their own.
The eighth deer, too, fell through the ice, but was rescued by lake residents.
It was the second time this unseasonably warm fall there have been reports of lakeshore owners seeing deer falling through the ice, struggling to survive. The first report was Nov. 9 on Gull River, also near Brainerd. A conservation officer with the Department of Natural Resources helped rescue the deer.
In Saturday's incident, South Long Lake resident Andrea Walker said she looked out her window just after 7 a.m. when she saw eight deer stuck out in the middle of the lake, and four broke through the ice. Walker watched the other four deer walk off the lake-slipping and sliding-but they made their way safely to the shoreline.
Walker was concerned as she watched the other four deer struggling to get out of the lake. She wanted to help them, but she didn't have any proper equipment. She first called Mike O'Brien, the president of the South Long Lake Association, and told him about the situation. She then called 911 and talked with a Minnesota State Patrol trooper in Roseville. She said the trooper told her they couldn't do anything to help the deer, as it could endanger a human being's life during the rescue. She said the trooper gave her a phone number for the Brainerd DNR office, and she left a message, but knew they were not in the office on a Saturday to retrieve the message in time to save the deer.
"I was getting frustrated," Walker said. "I was told that you have to let nature take its course. ... I called Brainerd police and they said the DNR was informed and knew about it ... but no one did anything about it."
Sgt. Neil Dickenson of the Minnesota State Patrol said the state patrol typically does not handle calls such as a deer rescue. He said the report was made and a DNR conservation officer in the area was made aware of the incident.
As Walker was making the calls, she watched the deer through her binoculars and saw two of the smaller deer drown around 9 a.m. She then saw a boat heading out to save the last remaining deer. Walker said it was her neighbors EJ Swanson and Terry Huber.
Walker said Swanson, who didn't want to talk about the deer rescue as he is a private person, called Huber to go save the deer. The two, equipped in personal flotation devices, used a lightweight boat, had 500 feet of rope and an ice chopper and headed out to the middle of the lake. Swanson and Huber chopped the ice to create a path to get to the deer, then lifted the deer into the boat and brought it to shore.
"She didn't struggle much," Walker said, as the deer was in the water for three hours. "Those guys got the deer to shore, helped it stand up and then it scampered off. I hope it lived.
"Those two men are heroes. They are two men in their 60s and they knew exactly what to do. They took all the safety precautions necessary. ... I am so happy they were able to help the deer."
Walker plans to buy a lightweight boat so if this situation arises again she will be able to help.
"You feel totally helpless," she said. "I could hear the poor deer splashing in the water. It was just so sad."
DNR Capt. Alex Gutierrez, administrative manager in the St. Paul office, said the DNR has no policy in place on how it handles animals in distress calls. Gutierrez called back after he sat in a DNR leadership conference Monday at Camp Ripley, where one of the topics was how to handle injured animals calls.
"We have some direction on how we handle these calls," Gutierrez said. "The No. 1 thing is public safety and then it is the officer's safety. Does the deer's life mean more than the officer's life? ... We don't want the public venturing out on the ice."
Gutierrez said animals with four legs can spread their weight much easier than a human with two legs; and animals are much lighter.
"We have to weigh everything (before responding to a call of an animal in distress)," Gutierrez said. "If our safety is in jeopardy to recover an animal (we won't.) If an animal is in distress it could hurt the officer or anyone trying to save it. We try to let Mother Nature take its course."
Gutierrez said if a DNR officer is in the area of the call and has the time and the proper equipment, they may try to rescue the animal, as long as it is feasible and safe.