Oh, deer!

A TV helicopter buzzing overhead. Baltimore County firefighters and Maryland Natural Resources Police officers on the scene. Defying a police order, two men in an inflatable boat braved the elements on the icy Patapsco River.

Last week's much-publicized incident in Linthicum had all the elements of a daring rescue, except the victim was no capsized fisherman or stranded swimmer. It was a deer — as in a wild animal. You know, the kind that live out there, where they take their chances with cold weather and rivers and other of Mother Nature's challenges.

Treating animals humanely is one thing. Risking one's life — and in so doing, occupying the time of emergency responders who would have had to jump in after them — was not a particularly brilliant move on the part of the two bystanders who took action.

Admittedly, it isn't pleasant to witness what these two men saw: a deer that broke through the ice while crossing the river and was desperately struggling to get out. That they felt such deep compassion for the animal is to their credit.

But, as the DNR police report, Good Samaritans Jim Hart and Khalil Abusakran were dressed in nothing more protective than jackets and jeans. After successfully freeing the doe, they were cited by police for not having life vests in their rubber boat.

Those $90 citations may strike some animal lovers as harsh and insensitive, but the two could have been arrested and charged with failing to obey a lawful order from police, which carries of fine of up to $1,500 and 30 days in jail. They also might've been killed.

The point is, what the two men did was foolhardy. Worse, it may prompt others to take similar action. Deer are abundant in this state, and opportunities to perform dangerous stunts on their behalf are no doubt growing every day.

Few animals seem to inspire more irrational behavior by humans. To many suburbanites, deer are garden pests, tick and disease spreaders and traffic nuisances. Others view deer as something akin to 3-D Walt Disney characters: loveable, cute and cuddly vegetarians, and therefore deserving of absolute protection.

Instead of patrolling the Patapsco, anyone serious about deer welfare would be better off patrolling I-95. An estimated 32,000 deer are hit by cars (or vice versa) each year in Maryland. Nationally, they are involved in 1.5 million car crashes each year.

How sad for the smaller mammals like skunks, woodchucks or opossums that don't generally inspire people to get in a boat in the midst of freezing weather to rescue them when they encounter hazards. Tough luck for that branch of the animal kingdom. Snakes and bats have it worse; people would be more likely to swing an oar at them.

But until such animals come up with their own versions of police and fire crews, the chief job for the human variety is to keep people safe. The citations are a slap on the wrist compared to the risks involved. Bipedal primates ought to know better.

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