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Deer Friends

 

This essay was published in THE VALLEY CHRONICLE in November 1999.

During our first winter on Stucker Mesa, we were thrilled to see mule deer on our property. As soon as the weather got cold, our yard of sage, juniper and rocks turned into a crossing for bucks, does and fawns. Toward evening they'd come down out of the high country and leisurely make their way toward the river valley below. Then, in the first light of morning, they'd return from their nocturnal browsing.

Deer-watching has become my passion. I steal time from my busy schedule to get up early and stand at the window with a cup of coffee. The deer come close, sometimes right up to the house. They peer inside the windows, their wide ears erect, their bodies fixed like statues as they seem to wonder what's going on with the two-legged creatures inside.

Watching the deer is also the way our cat passes her time. The orange tabby seems fascinated by these large graceful mammals that stop and study her when she is out among them.

One afternoon last winter a good-sized buck approached the cat. I suppose he was curious about this small four-legged animal with the swishing tail. He casually nosed toward the cat and she hopped up when he got within five feet. The next thing we knew she was cornered against the shed. Finally she leaped onto the fence post and then onto the roof, safely out of reach.

Last winter we noticed a special doe and her fawn. The fawn was significantly smaller in size than the other fawns, and this little one limped. It and its mother were often left behind when the herd moved through. We soon saw that the fawn had two deformed back legs, one of which hadn't completely developed. We knew this fawn was not going to make it through the winter. Eventually it would starve, if coyotes didn't bring it down first. We pinned the name "Gimpy" on this fawn.

Gimpy and her mother stayed near our home most of the winter. They couldn't keep up with the rest of the herd, and sometimes I'd observe other does trying to chase Gimpy away. We wondered if "Mother," as we called her, would abandon this fawn, but she didn't.

It is tempting for human begins to interfere with nature when we see what we term "injustice." My husband wanted to build a corral for this unfortunate creature, but there are laws about harboring wildlife. We also considered shooting the fawn before it suffered too much, but I don't believe I could have pulled the trigger.

What happened was we befriended the doe and her fawn, who were remarkably tame and had an almost insatiable craving for apples. I don't recommend that people feed wild animals. In a general sense, it actually harms them more than helps them because, for one thing, it gets them used to people; secondly, it can jeopardize their welfare if they don't forage for themselves, and they grow dependent on hand-outs lacking in nutritional value. Wild creatures are provided for by nature and in the long run do best with as little human contact as possible.

Despite my better judgment, my husband bought Gimpy and her mother a bale of hay, and we fed them a little now and then, right outside the kitchen window. The other deer tried to eat it, but we succeeded at shooing them away. Gimpy and Mother were not afraid of us. We would talk to them softly and they'd come within hand's reach. They seemed to understand that this was their hay. Mother, in particular, liked her apples and would come to the window and stare in.

I would cut her up an apple and toss the pieces, one by one, out to her. After each bite she'd stare up at me, expectantly, waiting for the next bite. I could see the swallowed apple slide down her throat. Gimpy would eat the apples, but she seemed to have trouble chewing them. I'd cut the pieces finer, but we noticed as time progressed that Gimpy ate less and wasn't getting any bigger.

I recall the afternoon I was inside working out in front of the TV to my Jazzercise video. Suddenly a congregation of deer were at the living room window. I wonder what was going through their minds.

It was in early February a year ago that I noticed Mother was alone. Gimpy no longer came with her. We were saddened, but knew it was inevitable, and in the spring during one of our walks we discovered the remains of Gimpy's skeleton on the property. My husband saved her skull, with the little patch of fur on top, and it's drying in the shed.

Summer came and passed. The deer didn't appear again until November. I searched for Mother, but was disappointed that she was not among the ones to pass through. Hideous memories of abandoned carcasses along the side of the highway made me wonder if Mother was among the carnage. My husband said I just didn't recognize her because all the deer look alike. But I insisted I would know Mother. Her face was unique, at least to me.

Then he told me most likely she had forgotten about last winter because, after all, she's only a deer.

Well, one morning in early December I was up shortly after 6 A.M., making coffee in front of the kitchen window. In the semi-darkness I was startled to see a deer's head come around the corner and peer in at me. I immediately recognized Mother! Yes, it was her. I knew her face.

I had a couple of apples shriveling up in the fruit dish, so I cut them up and slowly stepped out onto the porch. Mother didn't run away. I threw her the bits of apple and watched her eat, staring at me as she chewed each piece, swallowing, then stooping to get another bite.

I spoke to her softly. I thought she was alone and lamented the fact that she didn't have a new fawn.

Then, much to my surprise, around the corner of the house came a healthy-looking fawn, a little on the skittish side. his instinct obviously warned him not to come close.

Later that morning, I was watching them from the window, when a small-antlered buck that had bedded down 20 feet from the house rose and began sniffing after Mother. This was the time of year when the does come into season, and it's not unusual to see a lot of bucks -- rounding up a harem or chasing other bucks. This little pencil-antlered deer got a whiff of Mother and started following her. She immediately tried to get away from him.

What amused me was how the fawn reacted. He started chasing the buck away and rose up on his hind legs, as if to say, "Leave my mother alone!"

As the buck sauntered off to nibble some sage, Mother and her fawn let me view a tender moment of the two of them, nestling together. He rubbed his head against her neck and she licked his coat. Then they slowly wandered toward the cover of the trees.

 

Copyright © 1999 Ann Carol Ulrich. All Rights Reserved.

 

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