Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Deer 911

A couple of months ago, I was leaving a late-night meeting to drive the 45 minutes home on dark, two-lane Appalachian roads. “Be safe!” my fellow volunteers called out as I left. I shared their concern: dark country roads during the deer rut are dangerous indeed, and I always thank God when I make it home without killing myself or a deer.

I didn’t hit a deer on the way home, but I saw one that had been hit by someone else. It was bucking desperately from where it lay on the side of the road, trying to stand up so it could run to safety. It was a small deer, probably one of last year’s fawns or maybe a yearling, I’m guessing a doe. I called 911 and asked timidly if the need to put down an injured deer is indeed an emergency. Turns out it is, and the dispatcher sent a Maryland state highway officer to do the job.

While I waited, several cars stopped for a few seconds to look at the deer and then drove on. Finally, one stopped and backed up toward me, and a young woman got out.

“Are you claiming it?” she asked.

“I beg your pardon?”

“Are you claiming it? If not, I’ll take it. We don’t like to see good meat go to waste.”

I looked at her small, two-door, foreign car questioningly. “Hey,” she said. “All I need is a knife, a tarp, and a trunk!”  She was a tiny, thin thing. You gotta love a tough country gal.

I explained that I had already called 911, and she looked a little disappointed. “Well, hopefully he’ll let me claim it. He might want to use my knife instead of shooting it since we’re so close to houses.” It seemed she had done this before.

We waited together until he arrived, about fifteen minutes later. By then, the deer had managed to get on its feet and drag its wounded rear end across the road, where it continued about four or five feet and lay down in the grass. (For those of you who fault me for wasting the time of a police officer on such a situation, I can add that the deer standing in the road almost caused another hit. So ... endangering the public, etc., etc.)

I fretted the whole time. I hated to see that poor animal suffer. I also hated to think that she might actually heal up and survive if there weren’t an officer on his way to kill her, thanks to me. My husband is a hunter and has seen (er, shot) some strange things: a deer with a broken leg that had healed, a deer that had been shot and whose body had calcified the bullet and gone on to survive to an old age. Oh well, I consoled myself, at least she’ll feed a family. I know personally how deeply satisfying it is to go into winter with a freezer full of venison.

How many deer die horrible deaths every day as part of their natural lives? I would be willing to bet it’s a very high number. Disease, starvation, wounds, attacks by other animals, old age - the end of life can be pretty horrible for a deer. For all wildlife. So why did I feel so heartbroken about a deer hit by a car and so personally responsible for making sure that it suffered as little as possible? I’ve been chewing on that ever since, and I think it goes beyond the fact that I just really love animals.

I think we feel a responsibility for wildlife that live in our human environment. That deer was in the road that night because we built the road, because in the last few years we took that isolated farmland and developed it with McMansions and condos and now there are way too many cars on that narrow, curvy, unlighted road. We turned this country into a country of edges, where woods and fields come together, and the deer population thrived and increased because edge is the perfect habitat for white-tailed deer. I’m not faulting us for that (at least not right now, in this blog), but I am interested in how it might make us feel responsible for the animals that then live and die in our human landscape. It’s not so easy to just dismiss death as “part of the life cycle” when we set up the conditions that led to it.


  1. "Goodspeed's History of Southern Arkansas" published about 1890 tells us that when the first settlers came to AR in the 1830's there were so many deer, turkeys, quail, and yes, even bears that the invading humans had to shoo them out of the way. Nature itself used the "law of the jungle" to help solve the over population of these animals and fowls. After settlers came they used them for food sources. We even had an ancestor who was a bear hunter. He and his sons would ship the bear oil down river to New Orleans where he got a good price for it. It seems bear oil did not turn rancid as quickly as other oils and was in high demand due to the lack of refrigeration. But I diverse. My point is that without humans there is a natural depletion of these creatures and usually someone or something will profit from it's demise. I hope this helps remove some of your guilt feelings at the injury of the deer. BTW you didn't tell us the outcome. I hope the woman who wanted the poor thing for food got it. That is my practical side showing.

    1. Thanks, AA. Someone recently told me that you've never had popcorn until you've had popcorn popped in bear oil. I'd like to try it someday!

  2. Another part of the equation is the fact that there are so many deer right now. At the turn of the 19th into the 20th century, white tailed deer had been market hunted (very different from sport hunting) down to pitiful numbers. Some estimates say there were as few as 100,000 left in the entire country. By the mid 1990's there were an estimated 17 million white tails in the United States. With that many deer and millions of miles of roads these situations are not uncommon. But, it sure is sad when you see it happen. I feel the same way you do. It just doesn't seem like the "right" way for an animal to go, even when sometimes it is probably a much better end than the animal would come to in nature.

    1. Yes, I agree. I wish there were more hunting and fewer car hits!