Collecting bottles, tossing leftovers, taking out the garbage
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© Joe Hutto, Courtesy of Skyhorse Publishing
SPRING had finally arrived in that third year, and the first harbingers were emerging all around. Dandelions began to carpet the yard, creek banks, and meadows in lush green and yellow — a feast not only for the eyes but for the palate: the greens are a delicious addition to any salad, as are the flowers. As spring gradually moves farther up the mountain, the dandelion will follow, even to the highest elevations.
Although the dark, shadowed, timbered slopes above the ranch were still blanketed in heavy snow, the time for migration was at hand. A few of the deer started to disappear as their migratory urge became irresistible. But not Raggedy Anne. My wife Leslye and I began to notice that she was spending more time than usual around the house. Mule deer are ravenous for new green vegetation in spring, so we naturally assumed Anne was just taking advantage of the abundance and variety that the yard could provide. The apple and plum trees were festooned with swollen buds, and the purple-green leaves of every lilac shrub and tree created a wall of edible foliage. Anne rarely ventured far from the yard and would even remain after her family had wandered off onto a distant sagebrush slope.
Anne would lie for hours under the protective cover of the hedgerows surrounding the yard, moving only periodically to browse and then find a new protected spot to sleep and chew her cud. Unconsciously, upon leaving the house, I would glance around and look for Anne’s head and ears in silhouette somewhere nearby in the dense undercover. She would often stand by the back door as if asking for a deer treat, but we noticed that, after eating one or two, she would merely sniff the wafer and then, as if disappointed, wander back to her small refuge and lie down.
In two more days Anne refused all handouts, and we never saw her browsing. Clearly something was not right. When deer become injured or ill, they segregate themselves from other deer, perhaps because mule-deer society can be taxing and they are aware of their vulnerability. It was soon obvious that Anne was becoming solitary in a most disturbing way. Her family members were still in the vicinity, seemingly waiting for her cue to migrate. Anne even became uncomfortable in the relative safety of the yard, and one day she wandered down into the gully, seeking more solitude among the thick, scrubby willows along the creek bank. But even though she changed locations throughout the day and night, she seemed always to remain within sight of the house. Each day we would find Anne lying somewhere below the cliff face and near the creek. Once, at midday, I saw her standing motionless just above the creek in an uncomfortable posture with her head lowered — leaving no doubt she was in distress. But we were also consoled to see that Anne’s family was never far away. She was often in the company of her most recent fawn, Randy-Dandy, and last year’s fawn, Mandy, who would lie with her. Charm, Possum, and Rag Tag were usually close by or nosing around in the nearby willows.
One morning I couldn’t see Anne from atop the cliff face, and I wandered down below. Walking up the creek, I saw her lying among the willows in a well-protected, shady spot. She looked concerned, so I spoke in a soft voice to reassure her — “Hi, pretty girl” — but kept my distance. The date was May 8, and Anne remained in this spot for two more days. It was clear that she had not eaten. For a time I suspected that she might be trying to abort a premature fawn. Whatever the cause, she was without question deathly ill. Leslye and I began checking on Anne every hour or so throughout the daylight hours.
The following morning at first light we were disturbed to see ravens and magpies feeding on the far ridge above the gully. Thinking the worst, I grabbed my rifle and climbed down through the rocks and tramped a half mile to the top of the ridge. The birds flushed, and upon arriving at the site I was relieved to find the remains of a cottontail rabbit that had been killed by an eagle or coyote. On the way back down I passed by Anne’s usual location, and there she lay, exactly where I had seen her the day before. Again I spoke to reassure her, but, judging by the stressed look in her eyes, I saw no way she could survive.
ON the morning of May 10, as the sun rose over the eastern ridge, I could see that Anne had climbed above the creek run and was now on the opposite side of the gully, lying with her head lowered. As I watched, she stood up and walked a few feet and immediately lay back down. Anne’s older daughter, Rag Tag, was lying opposite her, across the gully. By afternoon most of Anne’s family had joined her. Obviously the deer were being “with” Anne. As Leslye watched, the youngest fawn, Randy-Dandy, walked over and groomed Anne for several minutes as she lay with head erect and eyes closed.
Late that afternoon the deer began to wander away, and as Leslye watched at sunset, Anne tried to stand and fell to the ground, kicking. Leslye ran to get me, and just as I arrived, Anne made her final kick and lay apparently dead. We watched without a word for thirty minutes. Not seeing any movement or breath of life, we knew Anne had died. She was on her left side with her head positioned slightly downhill. We chose not to approach her, in the unlikely event that she might still be alive and become frightened in her final minutes.
MAY 11, Mother’s Day. I walked out on the cliff face just after sunrise to find Anne lying exactly as we had last seen her. Rag Tag stood above Anne’s body, sniffing and observing her closely. Rag Tag remained with Anne that day, and by afternoon most of the herd was lying with Anne, while several others were in the willows just below.
Monday, May 12, early morning. I arrived on the cliff face to see Rag Tag, Mandy, and Randy-Dandy standing next to Anne. Rag Tag peered down and seemed to study her intensely. That afternoon I saw a magpie fly up from Anne’s location. I walked to the cliff face to see the does, Crescent, and her fawn Retta in the company of four other fawns. The deer encircled Anne with heads lowered and ears pressed forward. Then they began slowly moving up the hill with occasional glances back down. Randy-Dandy suddenly ran back to Anne’s outstretched body, obviously torn between staying at her mother’s side and proceeding ahead with the group. After several conflicted turns of the head, she relented and, with one last backward glance, trotted ahead to join the others.
But by afternoon most of the deer had reassembled around Anne.
TUESDAY, May 13. Leslye went to the cliff face shortly after sunrise to find Rag Tag lying close to Anne. Rag Tag remained nearby for most of the day and was eventually joined by several others in the afternoon. All the deer departed that day, beginning their belated spring migration, with Randy-Dandy and Charm the last to leave Anne’s side. The deer had determined that Anne was truly gone. She would be left behind. Perhaps for the first time in many generations, Anne would not be the intelligent light that guided their way.
That afternoon I ventured down to where Anne lay and observed that she had chosen a sunny and pleasant location, with low sagebrush and spring flowers all around. Holding her head in my lap and stroking her nose and muzzle, I recalled how many times I had felt that warm, soft nose and mouth on my hand and how many times I had run my hand down those big ears. The other deer were now all gone, and in that moment it became clear that our mutual obsession — theirs and mine — with this lifeless form was, at least in part, born of the same need: to see these sunken eyes filled again with her kind and ancient wisdom. Even in death Anne was still offering me her instruction.
How could so much intelligence and substance so quickly become lost? A powerful presence was gone from our lives. I carefully laid her head back down on the cool earth beside a big bouquet of dandelion flowers that Leslye must have left earlier in the day. Dandelions were always Anne’s favorite.
THAT evening I read back over the daily field notes that I’d kept during Anne’s passing, in an effort to somehow objectively assimilate the unexpected and moving events of the last several days. Had I just observed and experienced caring, mourning, and grief in a family of mule deer? How was I supposed to interpret these events? Who was I to make assumptions about the depth of another creature’s emotions? Realizing that I could not evaluate or even fathom the significance of what had just occurred before my own eyes, I closed my journal on Raggedy Anne and refused to look at it for three years.
Anne’s skeleton still lies exactly where she died — and, interestingly, no scavengers or predators ever disturbed her body. The location is a particularly beautiful spot, so it may be only coincidence that many deer from Anne’s family find it a suitable place to spend hours in repose. Or is it possible that they still recall or even long for Anne’s presence? Life is so much more complex than we know. I seem to grow increasingly helpless to speculate on these things. Ethology, in its purest and most honest form, is primarily an exercise in discovering how little we know about living things — the futile attempt to apply an empirical methodology to all that is abstract, subjective, qualitative, and undeniably mystical.
“Anne” is an edited version of a chapter from Touching the Wild: Living with the Mule Deer of Deadman Gulch, by Joe Hutto. Copyright © 2014 by Joe Hutto. Text and images used by permission of Skyhorse Publishing.