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Student workers receive hands-on experience with deer at Penn State center

Posted: April 10, 2019

Penn State's Deer Research Center introduces students to industry regulations and inspections while working in a captive wildlife facility.
General health care is a big part of the students’ work at the Penn State Deer Research Center. Here, Joey Dell, Kayla Schlichting and Maddy Schneider take antler measurements on a sedated buck during fall vaccinations. Penn State Image

General health care is a big part of the students’ work at the Penn State Deer Research Center. Here, Joey Dell, Kayla Schlichting and Maddy Schneider take antler measurements on a sedated buck during fall vaccinations. Penn State Image

 By Kelly Jedrzejewski

Penn State's Deer Research Center, commonly referred to as "the deer pens," has been an endearing part of many students' college experiences since the 1970s, providing a one-of-a-kind opportunity for hands-on learning about one of the state's most recognizable mammals.

"Whether it's farmers dealing with crop damage or natural resource managers dealing with impacts on habitats, the prevalence of deer means they impact agriculture," said Don Wagner, who manages the 22-acre facility in the College of Agricultural Sciences. "Along with research, the pens are a place for students to learn about industry regulations and inspections that are part of operating a captive wildlife facility."

For biosecurity reasons, the facility is not open to the public, except for approved tours. The only people authorized to be in the facility are Penn State staff, which include student employees who, under the watchful eye of Wagner, play an important role in caring for the center's 75 white-tailed deer. About eight students are employed at any given time; currently, there are four seniors with a variety of majors.

One of those students is Maddy Schneider, who is majoring in veterinary and biomedical sciences. Schneider, of Saint Marys, toured all of the University's farms during freshman orientation, but the deer pens caught her attention.

"It's not something that you see every day," she said, adding that she believes her experience at the center was beneficial in applying to veterinary school.

Tony Musselman, of Schaefferstown, will graduate with a degree in wildlife and fisheries science and has plans to continue his education to become a certified wildlife or fisheries biologist. He said that the deer pens are "the only place on campus to get hands-on experience with large wild animals."

Joey Dell, of Huntingdon, also studying wildlife and fisheries science, agreed that working at the deer pens has given him experiences he could not have gained anywhere else. He and the other students said they are learning a lot from Wagner, whom they describe as "a great boss and mentor."

Rachel Reitz, of Hughesville, is majoring in animal science and said she was encouraged by family to work at the University's farms. Reitz's research led her to the deer unit.

"I want to be a well-rounded student," she said. "Having a background in business, domestic animal science and wildlife sciences has given me insight into the whole industry."

The students start their day by checking the deer to make sure they are healthy and have plenty to eat. The deer eat alfalfa hay and deer feed to supplement the natural forage in their paddocks. The students said that telling the deer apart is easier than one might imagine.

"When I started here, it seemed impossible to tell who was who," Reitz said. "But the more time you spend with the deer, the easier it is to pick out the small differences."

Musselman noted that the deer tend to be inquisitive and usually have docile personalities, but added, "When you take them into the barn for vaccinations or anything else, that can change."

To vaccinate and conduct health checks, the deer are herded into a holding pen in the barn, then into a special chute. The students explained that the deer can strike and bite like any cornered wild animal.

"They literally growl like a grizzly bear," Reitz said.

Another important part of the work is taking care of fawns. An average year will see about 20 fawns born, but last summer there were 26. Dell cited the animal husbandry as a favorite aspect of his time at the deer pens.

"Having been here for fawning was awesome, and seeing them grow and knowing that I have a part in keeping all of our deer safe and fed is rewarding," he said.

"We go out every morning in the summer and look for fawns," Schneider added. "It can be one of the hardest parts - they're easy to miss. You can walk right past one several times and not notice it."

After locating the newborns, they are carried into the barn where each one is given an ear tag, weighed and sexed for welfare purposes.

Eventually, the fawns are weaned from the does.

"Counting doesn't get easier when the fawns are older," said Schneider. "They zing around the pen so fast, it's hard to tell who you've counted already."

 The most recent research at the facility focuses on fencing, with the goal of minimizing contact between wild and captive herds. Different kinds of fence are used to separate simulated wild and captive herds within the deer pens, and video cameras will be used to see how much contact the deer have between paddocks. An additional perimeter fence will be added around the facility to reduce contact between the research animals and the local wild herds.

The seniors agreed that working at the deer pens has been a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

"Most people get up and drag into class," said Schneider, who will attend Lincoln Memorial University in Tennessee to pursue a veterinary degree. "When I wake up, I'm excited for work. We may be doing vaccines or taking antlers off a buck to reduce the risk of injury, and when I go to class later, I know nobody else did what I did this morning."

"Hands down, working at the deer pens has been my best experience at Penn State," said Reitz, who is keeping her future options open but said she is inspired by Kelly Brown, a former co-worker and fellow animal science major who now works at a wolf sanctuary in Colorado.

"If she can do something so cool with her animal science degree, so can I," Reitz said.

Dell, who wants to pursue deer farming or deer biologist positions, said, "The deer pens are one of Penn State's hidden gems. It's the best job I've ever had."