Tuesday, October 5, 2010

A study in resilience

Here's a photograph of a doe that is about as near to death as I've ever seen. It was taken earlier this summer, and the photograph simply does not do justice to how horrible she looked. That right rear leg was so badly broken that it flopped back and forth as she limped along, and while you can't see it in the photograph, the other side was so swollen it looked like someone had planted a water balloon under her skin. She might have weighed 50 pounds, but I doubt it.

And how old were her fawns?

A week, maybe two weeks at most.

The situation presented me with quite a moral and philosophical dilemma. I felt there was absolutely no way this doe, which was one of our previous year's fawns, would make it another few days. But her fawns were clearly too young to survive on their own. What to do? Let her die? Shoot her? Try to keep the other does off her so she could eat a bit?

She couldn't run, she could barely walk, she could barely nurse. The other deer routinely beat her and ran her off not only the feed we placed out, but everything the deer grazed on around the house; grass, trees, shrubs, water. It was brutal, it was merciless and it was a stark but important lesson for the boys that no matter how much we'd like to sugercoat it, Nature is a harsh and unyielding bitch.

I called our county warden and discussed it with him. He said "If you think she's not going to survive I can come out, put her down and we can try to catch the fawns." I don't know why I hesitated, but I did. I told him I'd give it a day or two and call him back. I never did.

And thus began an entire summer of what I came to think of as "deer patrol." Every time I'd see her limp into the yard, looking around furtively to make sure no other does were near, I'd get up from what I was doing, grab a bucket of corn and a slingshot and go stand guard as she ate with that mangled, useless leg drawn up to her body.

I was still firmly convinced she wouldn't last the summer - there was really no question of that - but I knew there was no chance of catching her fawns and I figured if I could keep her alive long enough for the fawns to start eating, they'd at least have a fighting chance to make it into the fall. If mama doe could just hang on another couple weeks and get them off the milk, but that was a damn big "if"...

And here's a picture I snapped this morning...

Amazing, isn't it? The fawns are sleek and healthy and she's at a near-normal weight. Her leg will always be a little crooked and gimpy, and I still question how well she'll handle this winter, but she can walk and run pretty much normally, and more importantly, she can fight, rearing up on her hind legs to defend herself against other does. They no longer run her off like they used to. Just yesterday I watched as a little buck tried to bully her off  a patch of grass and got a quick hoof to the back for his troubles.

(and in case you're wondering, the warty-looking patches on her are a harmless skin condition called cutaneous fibromas. They're basically "deer warts" caused by biting flies. It's been a bad year for them and my theory as to why she has so many more than the other deer is that she has a compromised immune system from fighting off the infection in her leg.)

From an ethical standpoint should I have spent all summer doing what I did? I don't know. You could certainly make the case that I interfered, meddled in something I shouldn't have and artificially altered a situation I had no business in.

On the other hand, I've been deer hunting long enough to know I shouldn't make any negative assumptions about a deer's chances for survival. They are incredibly hardy animals, and there is no way of knowing if anything I did helped that doe's chances of  survival at all, and probably a bit egocentric to assume I did. She may very well have pulled through regardless.

So who knows? I guess, if you're inclined to see things one way I'm guilty of trifling with nature, anthropomorphizing the grand, cruel struggle for survival. And if you're inclined to see things another way I just did what comes natural to some humans who see an animal in distress, even those humans who hunt those same animals.

Me, I just do what feels right and natural. I never much saw the point in trying to analyze either logic or empathy. I just like watching those fawns dancing through the woods.


  1. What a great story! I think you did the right thing! Nature will find a way!

  2. If you get the chance. Could you shoot me a email. Thanks Todd Shaffer

  3. Don't forget that you're a part of the whole nature equation too. I wouldn't call it interfering, just another step in a very complicated dance. Cool story and pics - looks like a great place for boys to grow up.

  4. Chad,

    That doe might have pulled through in any event, but I doubt her twin fawns would have without your help. Besides that, since the deer are eating your yard in any case, directing a little more food toward one individual doesn't strike me as unethical at all. Great pics & post.

  5. Resilient for sure! Those deer are just that. I think what you did was exactly spot on. I'd have done the same thing. I am sure it was a much more difficult decision to wait it out than your post suggests, but you did it and that is awesome. So glad I read this today.

  6. Thanks for the comments, everyone. They make me feel just a bit less silly for the truly massive number of man-hours I've spent standing on my back porch zinging pebbles at the asses of all the other neighborhood deer so she could eat.

    Mark, it truly is. We did finally break down and buy the boys a Wii (sp?) for the sports games and I'm overjoyed to say it largely gathers dust.

    Todd, I can't seem to find your e-mail anywhere. Shoot me an e-mail at (sorry for the spaces but I don't want a bot getting my e-mail)

    ou chessie at g mail dot com

  7. Amen to Mark's comment. You sure did interfere, and I'm glad you did. The whole Prime Objective makes sense when we are coming down with invisibility forcefields onto new planets, but it makes no sense here. For all you know, somebody hit her with a car, and your interference was just putting something back to normal.

  8. Chad, sorry I'm late to the party here, but what you did is beautiful and I would've done the same thing. Compassion can be found among non-human animals too, particularly when it comes to helping out babies, so I wouldn't worry too much about interfering with the unyielding bitch. She makes a certain amount of room for that.

  9. Hey Chad sent a email never heard back. I have some old outdoor books looking for a home. Published in the forties.
    tmshaffer at Bell south. net