Deer from Buttonwood Park Zoo Undergoes Complicated Fracture Repair

Rescued white-tailed deer back to full health after close collaboration between Cummings School and the zoo
One brown deer followed by 4 other brown deer walking outside along dirt and grass covered lot
White-tailed deer, Annabelle after her surgery for a leg fracture. Photo: Kate Harding

A white-tailed deer named Annabelle imprinted on humans at just a few weeks old. When she fractured her leg several months later, her trust in people helped her recover from an injury most deer don’t come back from.

MassWildlife rescued Annabelle after her mother died. She lost her fear of people in MassWildlife’s foster program, so she could not return to the wild. At about eight weeks old, she started a new life at Buttonwood Park Zoo in New Bedford, Massachusetts.

“We were looking to add to our herd, so she came to us,” says Jill Hudon, C.V.T., L.V.T., a veterinary technician at Buttonwood Park Zoo.

The zookeepers helped raise Annabelle, bottle-feeding her for the first few months. She joined the herd at the same time as another new deer and two baby bison, and they all roam together in a large pasture at the zoo.

While running through the pasture exhibit in January last year, Annabelle caught her leg in rocks along a stream. When she tried to free herself, she fractured the elbow of her right front leg. The keepers brought her to a small holding area to look her over.

Annabelle presented with a slight limp, but continued to put weight on her leg, so the team thought she might have a soft tissue injury rather than a fracture. Hudon explains that when wild animals, even those habituated to people, are injured, their first instinct is to hide. They decided against sedating the fawn because hoofstock is prone to myopathy—when overexcited, sedation can cause their bodies to overheat. They let her rest while closely monitoring her. Not seeing any improvement over the next few days, Hudon and the team decided to sedate Annabelle for X-rays, revealing the fracture.

Hudon reached out to Buttonwood Park Zoo’s incoming veterinarian, Dr. Emmy Budas (she/her), who was in her final months of an internship in the Zoological Companion Animal Service (ZCAM) at Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine at Tufts University’s Henry and Lois Foster Hospital for Small Animals (FHSA). Hudon sent over Annabelle’s medical report and x-rays.

Dr. Budas consulted with Dr. Mike Karlin, an assistant professor in the Department of Clinical Sciences at FHSA, who specializes in small animal orthopedic surgery. Annabelle had a complicated fracture, so they decided to try surgery.

“If we couldn’t repair it, we’d try amputation, but it’s not feasible to move around as a three-legged deer. There was no guarantee we would be able to release her back into the pasture,” says Dr. Budas.

Hudon planned the deer’s transport from New Bedford to Grafton. At the same time, Dr. Budas prepared for Annabelle’s stay at Cummings School’s Hospital for Large Animals (HLA), setting up an isolation area just for Annabelle. Only Dr. Budas, Dr. Karlin, and the anesthesia team interacted with the fawn. Dr. Budas asked Annabelle’s zookeepers for advice on how to gain Annabelle’s trust so they could treat her.

“I learned that grapes are her favorite food. She grew fond of me after a couple of grapes,” says Dr. Budas. “To house deer at Tufts is not at all easy to do because of how skittish they are. Annabelle is so unique in her temperament; it made it all possible; she let me take care of her. She’s friendly, like a dog. I’m not sure another deer would have made it—most would be fearful and flee the situation. Because she has such a good connection with people, because of the keepers who raised her, she has been more willing.”

Dr. Karlin has treated deer for orthopedic injuries a handful of times—once a baby reindeer on Christmas day. He noted that this case was incredibly challenging. The fracture was comminuted (in multiple pieces) and had started healing abnormally over the two weeks since the break, so the doctors would need to break down the callus and resituate the pieces of bone into the correct spots. Some pieces of bone were missing entirely.

“If the body is healing the fracture and pieces aren’t healing in the right location, they will heal improperly, which can cause arthritis and dysfunction of the limb,” says Dr. Karlin. “It’s like a jigsaw puzzle without all the pieces and a picture to guide you. It was not a simple break.”

During the surgery, Dr. Karlin successfully attached two plates and several screws to repair her leg. Annabelle spent five days at HLA recovering before returning to Buttonwood Park Zoo.

“The post-operative recovery can be complicated when an animal is wild, even from a zoo. It’s hard to keep them as confined, as opposed to well-trained household pets,” says Dr. Karlin. “Her recovery was excellent. She went back to the zoo and to my understanding is frolicking around and doing well. The zoo’s caretakers should get immense credit for her post-op recovery, which is just as important as the surgical recovery. It was definitely a team effort.”

For the next eight weeks, Annabelle continued to recover at Buttonwood Park Zoo in a small outdoor enclosure with hospitalization stalls, a padded floor, and hay piles. She engaged in physical therapy each day and slowly reoriented to her surroundings.

“She needed limited spaces so that she would not do things,” says Hudon. “It was a soft release in increments to be sure she could maneuver her environment. For the first few weeks, we weren’t sure if she could ever use her leg again, and then once she figured out she could use it, she never looked back.”

The team sent Dr. Karlin X-rays to ensure the hardware to repair the fracture was still in place. When he gave the okay, they moved Annabelle to a slightly bigger outdoor holding area for the next four weeks before returning her to the pasture while staying in regular contact with Dr. Budas and Dr. Karlin.

According to Hudon, Annabelle now blends right in with the other five does in the pasture, with 100 percent mobility in her leg. “Annabelle is the most outgoing of all the deer. She always comes to you for your affection and attention, and maybe if you have a biscuit in your pocket too.”

Dr. Budas became the veterinarian for all the animals at Buttonwood Park Zoo a few months after Annabelle’s surgery. “I’ve always wanted to work at a zoo; I’ve known since I could speak. I also wanted to pair it with conservation to give back to animals that are having their habitat destroyed. It was truly the best day of my life when I finally got this job. Not a day goes by when I don’t love coming to work.”

For the past year, she’s worked closely with Hudon, keeping the animals healthy, treating injuries and illnesses, and performing annual exams and routine surgeries. She consults with Cummings School or Angell Animal Medical Center in Boston for specialty cases or if an animal requires more diagnostic care than the zoo can provide. She says that her connection with Cummings School often comes in handy.

Dr. Budas regularly checks in on Annabelle. “She’s with the rest of the deer. She runs around and chases birds; she’s completely normal. You wouldn’t know it happened to her if you didn’t know her story.”

Prior to Annabelle’s injury, Buttonwood Park Zoo contacted Cummings School when a fennec fox injured its leg. Dr. Karlin performed that surgery also.

“The fox went on to live a happy life after that,” says Hudon. “We always have a great experience with Tufts; they’ve helped us out in a lot of situations. Their staff gives 110 percent every time. If Tufts had not intervened, Annabelle’s outcome would have been very different. We are very thankful.”