Saturday night snow met me as I stepped off the train from Chicago, a wet, blowing snow that stung my face. The train had been packed full of people like me who had attended the annual Associated Writing Programs Conference for the last three or four days. My husband, a quiet man, was waiting in the parking lot to take me home. The silence felt as good as the snow’s chill on my face after days of heated chatter—even the wind in Chicago carried the word I, pushing it along Michigan Avenue, swirling high above the streetlights. I—I—I!
We turned off Mt. Hope onto Okemos Road and that’s when I spotted them—four deer huddling together in the bushes on a slight incline at the side of the road. They intended to cross Okemos Road, a nightmarish crossing because two lanes of traffic go both ways and the road is heavily traveled. In the light of their bright eyes and dust of snow on their backs, I could see they were leaning towards the road, and my heart sank. Crossing roads is what deer do—they move from one open space to another in their home range by traversing roads and jumping fences that intersect their territory. Sometimes they don’t make it. Away in Chicago, I had forgotten about the deer, how my life is enmeshed with theirs, how I share my home with them on the banks of the Red Cedar River, and how what happens to them is not only a statistic on the township’s wildlife ledger—what happens to them happens to me.
The next morning, in a space of five minutes I watched three hawks in a straight line fly through my yard and out over the river, followed by five deer plowing down the banks to the river, high and fast because of melted snow, and swim to the other side. These are the moments I live for.
But later, on Wednesday, on the third anniversary of my father’s death, a freakishly early spring day with the temperature in the sixties and the sun warm on my face, I encountered the dark side of living among animals—it is not all about postcard moments of pastoral beauty. There’s accident and helplessness and dying; there’s pain, long and lingering.
I had just returned from a noon walk with the dogs through the fields and started picking up branches that had come down during the winter. I spied a large branch and was walking towards it when I saw the deer lying still in the ivy under the white pine. As I neared, he—for it was a juvenile buck and not yet a year old—tried to rise and I could see there was some difficulty. His left hind leg dangled limp from the rump. He couldn’t put any weight on the leg because it appeared to be broken in two places. He limped a few steps and stopped to look at me. I immediately turned, walked away, and went inside to watch him from the living room window to see if I could take the measure of his injuries. Eventually he settled back down in the exact place I had moved him from.
I was undone. There is no other way to say it, for I knew nothing good could come from this.
Still, I had to try something. I looked up animal rescue sites in the local area. Every group handled dogs and cats, no wildlife; even Michigan State University’s Large Animal Clinic wouldn’t touch a deer. I called two groups in Eaton Rapids and Ann Arbor that mentioned deer on their website. No one answered and I left messages. The Michigan Department of Natural Resources won’t respond to injured deer, I discovered. Reluctantly, having run out of options I called the Meridian Township Police, and to my surprise two officers and an intern in two cars were dispatched to my address.
As it turned out, one of my neighbors had called earlier in the morning about the deer and this was the second time Officer Reed had paid a visit to my neighborhood. The deer had been found leaning against my neighbor’s house after he had gotten his leg caught in the fence that separates our neighborhood from the natural preserve to the east. According to my neighbor, he broke his leg trying to get free. My neighbors and I hate this fence. We do not count ourselves as fans of the proverb “Good fences make good neighbors” that Robert Frost coined in his poem “Mending Wall.” We are fence-free; our yards blend into a long stretch of open space that follows the curve of the river. I’m like Frost’s speaker who says “something there is that doesn’t love a wall.” If there’s a fence, someone or something is going to get hurt. When I was a kid I ripped the whole back of my lower leg in a barbed wire fence my neighbor had erected. The scar formed the shape of a new moon, but I healed.
The female officer and the intern came inside to talk me through what was going to happen while Officer Reed was seeing if he could get close enough to the deer to shoot it. Earlier he had determined he couldn’t shoot the deer cleanly, that is kill it, and he hadn’t wanted to maim the deer and have it drown slowly and painfully in the river, where it would assuredly go to escape. The deer rose up and started off, and Officer Reed again decided he didn’t want to try to shoot it. Discharging a firearm is not something police officers do lightly, and later when I spoke with him I could tell he wasn’t confident that he could kill the deer.
Inside, while Officer Reed was stalking the deer and the female officer, whose name I never got, was trying to calm me down, I lost it. I hadn’t called them to shoot the deer. The idea that the deer was going to be shot in my yard, right here and now, was more than I could stand. I thought about the sound the gun would make, the deer falling. I worried that he would miss and make things much worse. Or as Holly, another neighbor and I discussed later, the deer might fall in the river, and I’d have to go in and pull it out because I couldn’t let it drown.
And then the police were gone. One minute they had swept into my life and the next they were backing out of the driveway. There was nothing they could do, they said. I was told to monitor the situation and call them if I thought the deer was worsening. The deer was now hobbling at the far end of my yard, down by the river, and then he went up the other side and settled behind a large tree trunk, near my neighbor’s fence, in a bed of leaves—a kind of shelter. No one would see him there but me.
That’s when Cheryl, from one of the animal rescue organizations called me back. She told me what I had already figured out—that no one will get involved with an adult deer, or even a juvenile one like this young buck. Sometimes a fawn will be rescued and later released, but adult deer won’t tolerate any form of captivity. You can’t keep them calm enough for their injuries to heal even if you’ve managed to find a vet willing to provide care. Cheryl said, “You can try to get a DNR person to come out to put the deer down or you can let the deer alone, perhaps put out corn and hope he’ll make it.” In a last-ditch attempt to make me feel better, she said she’s seen three-legged deer do fine.
I watched the deer through the afternoon, careful not to let my dogs out or disturb him. And then Officer Reed came back. I know he was trying to be helpful. He thought if the deer couldn’t get up, he’d shoot him. But the buck did get up, and this time he moved out of my yard, and now I don’t know where he is.
That night Holly came over with a bag of deer feed for me to spread. If the deer did return, food would be available. And she spread some in her yard two houses down. And another neighbor came by to say she knew this deer; he was often in her yard, she was sure.
The next morning, at 8:30 Officer Reed returned yet again. I told him the deer was gone. He asked me to call him if I saw him again. I haven’t seen him, but even if I did, I don’t think I’ll call. I understand that the police have tried to help me, help the deer. They’ve been kind. Still, if we can’t treat his injuries and if we can’t kill him cleanly, then we should leave him alone. I believe, but don’t know, that the deer has found a place where he won’t be disturbed to die. Unlike human beings, animals want to die alone, away from all eyes. I don’t believe the dying will be quick; it is probably going on now as I write.
This morning I watch a group of five deer across the river. And I thought about my neighbor’s comment that she knew this deer and what that means. Often at night there is a solitary buck at the edge of the yard. This is my place, his stance seems to say. And yes, I’ve thought, it is.