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Oh, Deer! An early morning rescue at Cassatt Preserve

July 21, 2022

by Tianna G. Hansen

The day before Independence Day, retired elementary school teacher Tom McCandless headed out for his daily morning walk. An avid hiker and lover of nature, Tom is a creature of habit: he takes the same route every morning through the Cassatt Preserve, part of the Upper Main Line YMCA in Berwyn, PA.

A sign at Cassatt Preserve announcing it as the first conservation easement in PA.

A sign at Cassatt Preserve announcing it as the first conservation easement in PA. Photo: Tom McCandless.

Tom finds joy in the call of a Wood Thrush that greets him from the same spot each morning and, “the well-maintained and groomed trails and little pond” that the nearly 20-acre property offers visitors.

The Cassatt Preserve has the distinction of being the first conservation easement in Pennsylvania, which Natural Lands established on the property in 1966. A conservation easement is a voluntary and legally binding agreement between a landowner and a qualified conservation organization that permanently limits the property’s use and development.

Ever since his teaching days, Tom has enjoyed exploring the world around him. He used to take his students on nature expeditions and was recently encouraged by his grandson to discover new trailways close by. “A year and a half ago, my grandson and his mother gifted me with a binder with all the natural lands and open space trails in the region — the challenge was for me to walk them all.” Each morning, without fail, his feet find the familiar paths around Cassatt Preserve, an easy rhythm Tom has settled into over the past eight  years, regardless of where else he explores.

A spotted fawn with its hind leg trapped between two planks in a wooden boardwalk.

A spotted fawn had its hind leg trapped between two planks of a wooden boardwalk located at Cassatt Preserve. Photo: Tom McCandless.

This particular morning, however, Tom did not yet know he was in for quite the adventure. As he got about five minutes into his stroll along a boardwalk which had been set up a couple years ago, Tom came across a tiny spotted fawn with its hind leg wedged between the boards. Its leg was just slim enough to have slipped between the two planks, but the fawn could not free itself and was lying with its nose in the dirt, exhausted from struggling. Tom thought the baby animal was dead at first glance, but as he slowly moved around it and kept his eye on the small creature, he noticed it was still alive, slowly blinking at him. He immediately stepped into action.

“I bent down and carefully took its leg in my hand to see if I could dislodge it,” Tom says. “What a noise the deer made—a high screeching sound of distress.” As Tom tried to free its leg without success, he quickly realized this was not going to be an easy rescue, and soon had another contender to deal with: an angry mother doe. “[She was] stamping and huffing,” he says. “Don’t mess with a mom defending its young one.”

The helplessness of Tom’s bare hands sent him back along the path he had come. He rushed home and returned with reinforcements: a screwdriver and hammer. Yet, no matter how he tried, he could not get the small fawn free. He was unable to wedge the boards apart enough with the tools and began a defeated (yet still determined!) trek back through the preserve once more.

“I was determined to help,” he recalls. “One more trip home and I returned with a crowbar.” This time, the tool was just what he needed. “Instant success! The baby bolted away into the underbrush.” As he watched the fawn go, Tom couldn’t tell how injured it was, but said the mad dash for freedom gave him hope.

“As I walked home,” Tom mused, “I wondered if, one day, this deer would be in my yard eating my hosta.”

Please note: A fawn found alone is often not abandoned. While this situation and rescue was extraordinary, as Tom described, the mother was watching nearby. As a general rule, don’t touch a fawn you find alone in the woods. If the animal appears to be injured or in danger, please contact a wildlife rehabilitator or find more info on what you should do.

about Cassatt Preserve

The Beacon newsletter from 1966, featuring headline 'Loan to Main Line YMCA for natural area.'

The Beacon newsletter from 1966, featuring headline ‘Loan to Main Line YMCA for natural area.’ Photo: Tianna G. Hansen.

In 1966, Natural Lands placed a conservation easement on about 20 acres of the Upper Mail Line YMCA, built on what was once the estate of J. Gardner Cassatt. The easement was established to “preserve the fine woods and stream at the entrance to the property as a natural area for nature education and sanctuary purposes,” as written in that year’s The Beacon. Natural Lands was then known as the Philadelphia Conservationists.

The name “Cassatt” is of Italian origin, meaning “Castle,” and the regal landscape of the preserve reflects this name. It is a well-known birding hotspot beloved by birders near and far. The Cassatt family name is linked to impressionist painter Mary Cassatt (1844-1926), and the property used to be owned by her family.

Today, Cassatt Preserve offers guests and visitors beautiful acres of wildland to enjoy, such as Tom does every morning.

Learn more about conservation easements and the important work they do.

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