Ruminations on a ruminant

David Feela - 08/04/2016

During the summer I take my pellet rifle outside nearly every day, not for target practice but to chase a party of hoofed organic pellet-makers away. I don’t want to kill them, just create a kind of mental electric fence around the perimeter of my house. Deer – and you may love them – but those sweet Bambi-like creatures have come to think of my 3 acres as a 24-hour all-you-can-eat buffet.

I don’t begrudge the critters their sustainable forage, and I have plenty of it. In the last three months, however, they’ve devastated my rugosa roses, nipping each bud as it appears, as if it was a piece of chocolate. They’ve killed two of my three young aspens by gnawing the bark, stripping the trunk down to the marrow. To the deer the bark must taste like some kind of vegetable jerky. And in the eight years since I’ve planted the Nanking bush cherry shrubs along the driveway, they haven’t reached a height of more than 12 inches, despite fertilizing and watering. My midnight gardeners religiously prune them while I’m asleep. They might even creep up to the window to snicker before they leave.     

I try to keep the vulnerable plants shielded with chicken wire all winter, but by spring, like every living thing, they are putting on new growth, straining to reach the sun, and they get inextricably tangled in the wire. So I have to remove my makeshift cages and store them behind the barn before preparing to take up guard duty once more.

While sitting at my desk, like I am right now, trying to write a few paragraphs, a silhouette of my nemesis appears on the horizon. One window faces east, one to the south, and another to the west. I feel like a poker player in an old cowboy saloon, keeping my back to the wall. I type a paragraph, look up, and half the time one of the regulars has appeared across the field, sizing up the landscaping. By the time I compose another paragraph, it has moved imperceptibly closer, sneaking up like a poorly mannered truck driver at a salad bar. 

Quickly I’m in the utility room, loading a silver pellet. It’s a single-shot air rifle, and the breach requires a steady hand to insert the tiny projectile. One shot, that’s all I’ve got. Stealthily I slide the patio door open and step onto the porch. I aim for the rump, knowing that the deer flies have already been there, hoping to make a more memorable impression. Pfft! 

I’m sorry if this sounds insensitive, but when I’m lucky, the deer jumps, gives me the stink-eye and reverses her advance by heading toward the open field until she’s just out of range, then she stops to turn her slender face and beautiful eyes to glare at me. She’s no doubt offended to be singled out. Or maybe she thinks of me as just another pest. I shout, “Git out of here,” wave my arms over my head and often she’ll wander away without me having to chase her through the field.

There’s a reason I wave my arms that way. A manager at the Denver Zoo once took me on a tour. He pointed toward an enclosure with an impressive buck watching us, his herd gathered behind him, and my friend asked me to guess which animal in the park is the most dangerous.

“Some kind of big cat?” I conjectured.

“Not even close, but standing here we are very close” he hinted.

I glanced around, afraid I’d missed a lurking predator sharpening its claws.

“Deer?”

“Deer are so common and aesthetically pleasing, people often underestimate their ability to inflict serious damage. They can be fierce, especially the does protecting their young and the bucks protecting their does. They’re fast, muscular, and powerful.”

With that pronouncement, he turned and faced the buck, raised his arms, his fingers writhing in the air above his head, which he explained appeared to the animal as if he’d grown a set of antlers. The buck snorted, lowered his own head, blowing air like the exhaust of a coal-fired steam train.

Our conversation took place over 20 years ago. I am still amazed at how little was required to provoke a Zoo-buck to fight. Each time I’m standing in the yard with my air rifle, thinking I’ll just shoo these animals away from the foliage as if they were a flock of sheep, I have second thoughts.  

What if the females inadvertently see me as a quirky but integral part of their mating game, one more buck convinced he’s got the stuff, and a few of the does, as their instinct instructs, are just playing hard to get, returning every evening around sunset because deep down they’re attracted? To me? Oh deer.

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