What Do We Owe a Little Doe Trapped Inside the Fence?
Puddock Hill Journal #24: Compassion meets frustration when our young trees get mowed down.
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Spring. The trees soften. The grass greens. The peepers serenade. We begin to catch glimpses of deer fawns, spotted, delicate, innocent, unsteady on their legs.
A doe has been hanging about in the dedicated open space outside our deer fence, owned by the development constructed on land that once went with our house. It has everything she might want: tall grass, a bit of woods, a stream to provide water.
One day, we see her with a pair of newborn fawns beside the driveway. They observe us as we come and go through the main gate, day after day. They haven’t learned fear yet.
Soon they linger a bit closer, near the deer fence on the hill by the tenant house. I see them in the morning sleeping by the tenant house gate. The gate sits high so it can accommodate the slope when it opens. A fawn could get under there, but they’d be scraping along blacktop. Under the fence itself run a pair of high-tension wires, but ground is by nature uneven and there are dips in places.
I begin to hope the fawns will move along. Instead, one day we find them inside the fence. They have developed a healthy suspicion of humans. When we come near, they flee, although seldom in a big rush. We won’t chase them at speed, lest they hurt themselves on the deer fence.
They are good at hiding. We can go a week without spotting them. The mother doe has rejoined her herd. When she comes to visit, the fawns bump into the fence trying to join her, but when we move to open a gate, everyone flees, the fawns into the interior. They disappear, but we know they’re here. Eating. Inside the fence.
We don’t see browsing damage yet. Perhaps they don’t require too many calories at this stage. Or maybe the plants are just outgrowing the damage during a wet summer. Yes, they’re here all summer. Glimpsed now and then. Often hiding. We know damage will ensue. We know we can’t allow them to stay in here forever.
Occasionally, when the men are working, making noise that may unsettle the fawns, we open a mower gate in hopes they will find their way out. No luck. The subject of inviting a bow hunter to cull the deer arises for the first time.
August. The fawns have grown into a pair of small does. They are half tame. The lazy dog doesn’t chase them. Sometimes we see them within yards of the house. They would be easy pickings for a hunter.
Larry, our part-time landscaper, has tried multiple times to drive the deer out the gate without success. He advocates for a hunter. I tell him to double his efforts instead.
The deer are doing what deer do. They are elusive, athletic, comfortable in the urban landscape, wary of humans. We humans killed or drove away most of their predators years ago. In the United States and Canada, there were estimated to be 300,000 white-tailed deer 150 years ago. Today, there are 30 million. They prefer to consume native plants, which allows invasives to thrive. They destroy the understory of forests, preventing native trees from replicating themselves, disrupting the ecosystem.
The two does inside our fence don’t know any of that. All they know is how to be a deer. To eat. To rest. To hide. To distrust anything that stands on two legs or rolls on wheels. The No. 1 killer of deer in these parts is the automobile.
If we call in a bow hunter, the deer will have brought their early demise onto themselves. They snuck in here. They refuse to walk through an open gate.
But, of course, that is my self-justification. They view the open gate with the same wariness they view any changes to their environment, as we all do. By late August, they have lived more of their lives inside the fence than outside it.
I receive a call from Larry. By chance, he and the guys cornered one of the does. It went to duck under the fence and they helped it out with a shove. Uninjured, they think.
This gives me hope that we’ll get the remaining doe to leave. She lives a lonely existence into September, looking out through the wire mesh of her cell at the herd that passes by twice a day, wishing instinctively to join them, unable to do so. On the other hand, no car will barrel up the driveway fast enough to run her over. With fifteen acres of landscape to browse and plentiful water, she will never go hungry or die of thirst.
The only things she has to fear are the bow hunter I might call and the loneliness of isolation. Perhaps to alleviate the latter, we start to see her more often, coming closer, looking at us curiously.
A notion strikes us. We purchase deer corn and place it in a bucket near a man gate. If we can acclimate her to approaching the gate and we eventually lure her out with corn, we won’t have to kill her. Next morning, the bucket is empty, tossed aside. We replenish and set up a trail camera. Another morning, and the corn has been eaten again, but the camera reveals that we’ve only been feeding raccoons.
Signs that the little doe is doing serious damage to our new trees start to emerge, especially along the east woods where we have saplings only a few feet tall. Nature has programmed her to fatten up for winter. She especially likes to eat maples, but she also severely damages some tuliptrees and a volunteer American mulberry that I had been encouraging.
Here’s what that looks like now:
See the stems where the leaves were eaten off? This can’t go on. She will set back our efforts at rewilding by years. We will have to bring in a bow hunter. But she is only being a deer. She knows not what she does.
I keep pushing off the hunter as damage accumulates. When she’s not browsing the east woods, she’s growing bolder, loitering in our vicinity. To get her to fully trust me, however, to come near enough to nuzzle me, to follow me, would take a year. By then she will have destroyed the entirety of a future forest.
We are well into September. I’m sitting on the patio one day when she gambols by, heading towards the back of the big pond. I go around the other way and open the mower gate, double back and chase her at a walk, pausing frequently, making her just nervous enough to keep moving. Then she spooks and runs right by the gate and heads up the hill to the tenant house. Damn.
I close and latch the mower gate, fetch the driveway gate opener, and hike to one of the mower gates in the east woods, swinging it open. Now she’ll have two means of egress. For an hour, I chase her in slow motion, corralling her toward the open gates. They have no appeal to her. She runs right past them. Eventually, she flees to the interior, likely bedding down in one of the meadows, and disappears again.
This doe will get out of here, I think, examining all the tree damage. Dead or alive.
I spot her every day for the better part of a week. I chase her away from the mulberry by the driveway, but she is back the next day, same time, same place. Like us, deer are creatures of habit. For ten years I watched the herd move east every morning across Puddock Hill and west every evening. Of course, they were eating along the way. We had no chance to restore the local ecosystem. Thus, the deer fence. Thus, frustration tells me, the inevitable bow hunter.
How many chances can I give her? How much harm will I allow her? If I can’t get her out this week, I will have to have her culled, I tell myself. Oh, let’s not use euphemisms. Killed.
The next day—just a few days before I sit down to write this—I spot her again. I approach her with a handful of corn. She is curious, cocks her head, wants to trust me. But instinct overcomes her again. She flees at a leisurely pace toward the east woods.
Pam is home, so I enlist her help. She opens the northeast mower gate and I circle around the deer and open the southeast one. Pam stands as a barrier northwest of her gate to discourage the little doe from heading into the wet meadow. I approach from the west, ever so slowly. The little doe walks right past the gate and positions herself to the south of it. The other gate isn’t even in play.
It occurs to me that she half trusts and half fears me. How do I use this to my advantage? I decide to proceed through the southeast gate and slowly walk north outside the fence, glancing back at her now and then, piquing her curiosity. This is her last chance.
The doe is out of sight when I reenter the impoundment area via the northeast gate and walk slowly back toward her. If she has remained where I left her, there is no hope, as her fear will carry her away from the open gate. But as I approach, I see something miraculous.
Two deer stand just outside the open mower gate. One is a full-grown doe. The other, I think and hope, is “my” deer, although there’s a chance it’s the other twin. In any case, I no longer see a doe inside the fence. Mother and daughter stare at me.
I quicken my pace. The little doe, if this is the little doe, considers her safety zone to be inside the fence. Her mother holds the opposite view. As I hustle up, she takes a nervous shuffle. I keep coming. She turns and flees into the woods, and her daughter follows. The little doe—I believe, I hope, I pray—is free!
How much tree damage might I have prevented by killing that little doe? How many words may I have written on my new novel in the time dedicated to coaxing her to freedom? What would the whole world have cared if I had pursued the easier path and brought in the bow hunter?
I don’t know the answers to those questions. But I do know that one little doe, trapped by man’s artifice, finally lives free.
That’s how the story is supposed to end, right? Not so fast.
Minutes after I typed the final period on the final sentence of this story, Pam called. She had just come through the gate and spotted the little doe inside.
The one I’d seen with the mother must have been her twin after all. They are out there hoping she’ll join them, and she was so close.
We tried again immediately, but once again she cantered past the open mower gate and made for the interior of the property. A few hours later, I spotted her by the barn.
This time, I had a different plan. There is a mower gate below the big pond, where a path and a narrow strip of land lies between the pond and the fence. Pam went and opened that mower gate and backed off, blocking escape past the pond to the east. Meanwhile, walking very slowly, I encouraged the little doe around the pond and drove her west.
Now she was trapped between us with the gate in the middle. For twenty minutes we adjusted our positions back and forth, one or two steps at a time. She stood six feet before the gate for a while, thinking she was hiding. Then she walked past the gate. Oh, no! Not again! Then she paused. Then she retreated. The opening, an unknown pathway, made her nervous. But not as nervous as our persistent presence.
In a moment almost too good to be true, with my heart racing (and surely the little doe’s too), she sprung through the gate and leaped over the stream into the open field. This time, we saw it with our own eyes.
At last, the little doe really is free!
Peak season for goldenrods (Solidago spp.)!
And the asters begin to join in! White doll’s daisy (Boltonia asteroides):
New York aster (Symphoyotrichum novi-belgii):
At least, that’s my best guess!