For the third time in his 17-year career as a Los Angeles County lifeguard, Dusty Wiggins recently found himself making his way through rough surf along the Malibu coastline to rescue a panicked deer.
But as he swam toward the frightened doe in 10 feet of water about 75 yards offshore, he was struggling to recall potentially useful lessons learned during two previous deer rescue efforts, neither of which had ended successfully.
In this case, the 1-year-old deer had ventured out of its habitat in Malibu Creek State Park, crossed Pacific Coast Highway and was drifting helplessly in the surf. By the time Wiggins arrived about 8 a.m. on June 1, a group of concerned citizens was trying to save the animal's life.
Initially, they had formed a large perimeter around the deer to prevent beachgoers or off-leash dogs from getting too close, according to a Los Angeles County Fire Department report released Saturday.
Among the first on the scene was Malibu resident Gayle Landes, who spotted the deer standing in ankle-deep water on the shoreline.
An approaching jogger in his mid-40s, wearing a hoodie and jogging shorts, was warned to stay clear of the deer. Instead, “he shrugged and kept coming -- he simply didn’t care,” Landes said.
The deer panicked and bolted into the ocean.
“My first thought was: Next stop, Hawaii,” Landes said. “I suddenly had to choose between tracking down that jerk or calling a lifeguard.”
She chose the latter.
Malibu resident Bo Bazylevsky grabbed his paddleboard and rushed into the water to try and steer the deer back to dry land. He was joined by an unknown fisherman in a kayak, who held the deer’s head above water as Bazylevsky pushed the kayak.
The kayaker managed to place a makeshift leash around the doe’s neck, which Wiggins grabbed with his left hand and started to pull.
“I swam sidestroke with my right hand,” Wiggins, 42, recalled in an interview Saturday. “As I headed toward shore, I was thinking about how this particular deer was frightened and super-fatigued, but had a pretty good chance of survival.”
Moments later, the deer’s hooves touched bottom and “she started jumping around a little bit,” he said.
Wiggins brought the animal onto shore. County animal control officers used long-handled poles to place cords around its neck.
The group laid the anxious deer on her side, then covered her head with a blanket to calm her down.
Together, the rescuers tied the animal’s hooves together, lifted her onto a stretcher and then carried her up a 30-foot-high bluff for placement in the back of a California Department of Fish and Wildlife truck.
The deer was rushed to a local Wildlife Rescue Center for a quick checkup, then transported back to open country and released.
The entire rescue operation lasted about an hour, Wiggins said.
“I’ve rescued hundreds of people – and now one doe,” Wiggins said. “I feel pretty good about that.”
Overall, county lifeguards have been dispatched to rescue about 10 deer in the ocean over the past 12 years, officials said. About 75% of those animals drowned.
As for lessons learned, Wiggins said, “Every rescue is a little bit different.”