Bambis' Guardian Angel

Sarah Ford meets a wildlife assistant who is dedicated to caring for real-life Bambis.

Sarah Ford meets a wildlife assistant who is dedicated to caring for real-life Bambis.

Photos by Mike Alsford

A young roe deer steps out of the shadows and tentatively approaches me and Emily in the paddock. Unsure about getting too close to the stranger standing next to his more familiar friend, he changes his mind and chooses to retreat to the sanctuary of his wooden shed.

Around six shy, nervous orphans such as this one arrive at West Hatch Wildlife Centre near Taunton every year, where they are cared for before being released back into the wild.

Wildlife Assistant Emily Atkinson leads the deer rehabilitation programme and I quickly learn that this is no nine-to-five job. Many of the animals brought into the RSPCA centre are sick or injured and require round-the-clock care and it’s Emily’s role to nurse these delicate creatures back to health.

For up to four months every year she cares for the animals while living in a caravan on site and for several years she had to endure this without electricity. Thankfully the van is now powered up, but she looks after the youngsters day and night, with no days off during the busy season; it’s often exhausting and sometimes heartbreaking. This is what you call sheer dedication to the job.

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"You do get attached, they are your babies for four months," says Emily, who radio tags the deer so that she is able to track them for six months after they have left her care.

"When I’m out tracking them, I feel proud, it’s such an accomplishment to get them through to release stage.

"To see them out integrating with other wild herds is fantastic. It shows that I’ve done it right."

Taunton-born Emily has been at West Hatch for six years. She has always loved animals and studied for her National Diploma in animal care at Cannington College before getting a job at Paignton Zoo hand rearing birds.

Here at West Hatch they admit around 200 different species each year and the facilities include floodable pens, making the centre an ideal location for seal rehabilitation. The centre also deals with oiled seabirds and it was during the Napoli crisis in 2007, when hundreds of birds were brought in covered in oil from the stricken container ship off the coast of Devon, that Emily became ill.

"We were working long hours and I became quite unwell with numbness and pins and needles on my right side and blurred vision," she recalls.

"I was diagnosed with Chiari Malformation with Syrinx, a condition where your brain is descending down your spinal chord. The condition is something I was born with.

"When I was diagnosed I went for an MRI scan and within a week was in theatre having brain surgery in Frenchay. It was all very sudden and I did not have time to think about it. But if I had not had the operation as soon as possible I could be in a wheelchair now, or worse, because my condition was rapidly deteriorating."

Emily tells me that this is a life-long illness, but having to deal with it has made her determined to push herself – ultimately leading her to work with the deer.

"I wanted to prove to myself that just because I had this condition I was not going to be held back. If anything it made me want to give it all I’ve got.

"When I first said I would look after the deer everyone said I was mad because I would not get any time off and it’s true, you do give up your social life for months. But I love wildlife and the deer make me thrive; they are one of my main passions."

Deer are usually brought into the centre by members of the public who have found the young creatures on their own and Emily’s first advice to anyone who thinks they have found an abandoned fawn is to monitor it for 24 hours before approaching.

"If you hear a fawn calling I would say keep your distance and keep an eye out for the mother. She will know you are there and she will not go to her fawn if she sees you. Keep watch for a day and if you do not see the mother, then bring the animal to us rather than taking it home with you because roe deer are extremely difficult to hand rear."

Perhaps the hardest thing to come to terms with is discovering that any of the deer she once cared for have been killed during the shooting season.

"You look after them for four months and then follow their progress and it is upsetting, when you and the deer have gone through so much hard work, to find they have been shot," she says sadly.

Last year, to celebrate the release of the Blu-Ray DVD of Bambi: Diamond Edition, the Walt Disney Company provided the RSPCA with money to improve the facilities for the deer orphans at West Hatch.

The real-life Bambis now have a super new deer shed but Emily is concerned about the state of 30-year-old fencing that is in desperate need of replacement to keep the paddocks secure and safe.

The centre is struggling for money to build and improve enclosures. As a charity, the RSPCA is funded entirely by donations; they receive no public or lottery finance.

West Hatch’s scientific research into the survival of its young deer back in the wild shows they do really well. The centre hopes, with the help of some greatly needed donations, to be able to continue to help this much-loved wild animal for years to come.

For further information on how you can help with donations, please contact Centre Manager Peter Venn: 0300 123 0721 or email