DETROIT – When a buck showed up on a Michigan beach over the Fourth of July weekend, beachgoers were eager to film, photograph and even pet the animal.

Don Poppe, a wildlife biologist with the Michigan Department of Natural Resources, has a message for Saugatuck Dunes State Park visitors who petted and interacted with the wild deer: Keep wildlife wild.

Poppe, the Allegan County wildlife biologist, said the buck – seen on the Lake Michigan beach about 162 miles west of Detroit – has been on the Department of Natural Resources’ radar since early June, when it started interacting with people. 

While deer can carry ticks with illnesses such as Lyme disease, Poppe said that when people pet, feed or get too close to deer, the immediate threat isn’t to the humans – it’s to the deer. 

“We want the deer to behave like a wild deer, and we don’t want to encourage it or enable it by feeding it or petting it or getting too close to it,” Poppe said.

When wild animals consistently interact with humans or are comfortable around people, they become “habituated,” Poppe said. Habituated deer can be dangerous come mating season, when buck testosterone levels increase. 

“During the mating season or the rut, habituated bucks have been known to charge or even attack humans,” Poppe said.

Poppe said the state Department of Natural Resources didn’t see evidence of people feeding this deer.

While people on social media suggested that the deer in the video could be diseased, Poppe said the buck’s familiarity with humans didn’t look like the symptom of an illness. 

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“The deer is alert, it’s not skinny – it looks healthy, in normal condition for a deer this time of year,” Poppe said. “…It appears to be a deer that is just used to humans and not bothered by humans – essentially a tame deer that’s been habituated to human contact and it’s not behaving like a wild deer would.”

Poppe said he hasn’t seen this issue “to this degree” – habituated deer can sometimes pop up in urban areas or spots without hunting, but they usually still show some fear of humans.

The Saugatuck deer, which was caught on camera rummaging in people’s snack bags and licking a beachgoer’s knee, is “just not afraid of humans at all,” Poppe said.

Poppe and the agency are continuing to keep an eye on this particular deer to see how its behavior develops. In the meantime, if you come across a wild animal – even one that seems friendly – Poppe said you should leave it alone.

“Keep your distance from the animal and operate as if it is a wild animal, and again, (do) not enable its comfort level with humans,” Poppe said. “I know (the deer) approaches people and it’s hard to do because it’s so cool to see wild animals up close, but the best thing for a wild animal is to be treated like a wild animal.”

Follow Emma Keith on Twitter: @emma_ckeith

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