Deer in the Garden

When I was growing up, big boys weren’t supposed to cry at the movies. I knew that. But when I was nine or ten-years -old, two movies did make me cry and probably helped shape the rest of my life. The worst one, the movie that broke my heart, was Old Yeller. When Old Yeller, the family dog, had to be put down because he had been bitten while protecting his family from a rabid wolf, I cried like a baby. I wonder if that had something to do with my lifelong love affair with dogs?

The second movie that touched my heart and made me cry was Bambi. Even though it was only a cartoon, I couldn’t understand why someone would shoot Bambi’s mother. This may be one of the reasons I have always had a soft spot for deer. I have worked with all types of deer—reindeer, red deer, and roe deer; elk, moose, and muntjac; fallow deer, barasingha, and Pere David’s—but white-tailed deer are my favorite.

W. T. Deer Patricia ca. 1977-78

When I was a senior keeper at the Toronto Zoo, I had a hand raised white-tail named Patricia that followed me around like a pet dog when I cleaned her pen. She was wild enough to breed and raise babies, but she was also imprinted on humans. Imprinting is cute when the deer is a female. But I once worked with an imprinted male that saw me as a rival during his rut. I stopped going in with him when he charged at me with his head lowered and I had to hold on to his antlers and back my way to the gate.

The range of the white-tailed deer is huge, from the Arctic Circle in Canada to parts of South America. If you look up the diet of white-tailed deer, you will see leaves, twigs, fruits, and nuts, as well as lichens and fungi listed. Place a group of deer in a heavily wooded area, fence them in, and they will eat everything from the ground up to about six feet. The entire area will look like someone when through with a chainsaw and manicured all the vegetation to a precise height—a height that is known in wildlife management as the “browse-line”. But white-tailed deer will readily turn to cultivated vegetation when available in urban areas—like my neighborhood. You might even list the daylilies in my wife’s garden as a favorite food.

Last summer, for the first time in the fifteen years, our deer problem escalated. We looked out the kitchen window into our fenced back yard one morning to see a doe and fawn standing on the lawn. When we went out to chase them off, mama easily jumped the fence to escape while the baby walked through the slats. That afternoon, Karen was out extending the height of our fence by stringing twine from tree to tree and fastening strips of rags. Problem solved—for now.

Deer are abundant in our land-locked urban neighborhood. I see them on my early morning walks and late in the evenings when driving home from some appointment. They are probably safer in my neighborhood than they are in the woods. I wonder if they know that. Do they pass the word to each other that the eating is good, and no one is shooting?

People have been hunting deer for thousands of years. Deer, along with gazelles, are designated in the book of Deuteronomy as “clean” animals that are given by God for humans to eat. And in Georgia, we take that God-given right seriously. Georgia’s 2020-2021 deer hunting season opens soon—archery in mid-September and firearms in mid-October. Out of the more than a million deer that live in Georgia, about a quarter of them are harvested every year. Another fifty thousand are killed on our roadways. But the population remains relatively constant because a female deer will give birth to one or two fawns every year.

It seems ironic that this fall, when thousands of hunters are getting up before dawn hoping to see a deer, my wife will be trying her best to shoo them away. Since we have successfully kept them out of our back yard, they have adapted to front-yard dining. The daylilies along the road seem to be attracting them. I have not witnessed this, but judging by the grazing pattern, they must be strolling along the road late at night and pausing to eat at the curb without stepping foot on the grass. Then, unfortunately, they see what is up in the yard.

They don’t eat our spirea, azaleas, or lantana. They seem to prefer the grassy plants like daylilies, agapanthus, and liriope. But hydrangeas must be some kind of delicacy. Last year, Karen planted three oak-leaf hydrangeas in the front bed. They were beautiful with large, dark green leaves and delicate, white blossoms. Had we done a little more research, we would have seen this notation on one website: Deer love to eat this plant. The hydrangeas never stood a chance. We tried erecting chicken wire cages over them, but we eventually transplanted them to the relative safety of the back yard.

Sometimes, when I wake up at night, I will creep to the front window and gaze into the front yard. A few weeks ago I saw a doe and two fawns standing on the lawn. I was mesmerized by the three deer bathed in the soft glow of moonlight and I was reminded of Patricia, my long-ago “pet” deer. The spell was broken when I realized they were standing in the daylilies. I remembered Bambi and knew I needed to warn them off. I opened the front door. That was all it took.

This summer, Karen has upped her game. The deer won’t leave those front-yard daylilies alone, and she is at the breaking point. We replaced the hydrangeas with spirea. She spent one evening cutting a disposable, aluminum roasting pan into little squares and strung the bits of shiny metal with twine in the front yard flower beds as a deterrent. She purchased three-pound containers of animal repellent granules to spread around the edges of the beds. It claims to ward off everything from deer to shrews. I’ve never seen a shrew in my yard, so at least it works on them. Whether it works on deer remains to be seen.

We pride ourselves on having a wildlife-friendly yard. We feed the hummingbirds. We have a pond with goldfish and frogs and a pair of box turtles raise their young. We even welcome any non-venomous snakes that want to hang out in the iris beds. Karen loves wildlife as much as I do but I am worried that one morning, when I walk out in the pre-dawn darkness to get the newspaper, I will find her crouched high above the front yard in my son’s tree-stand, wearing his camo-gear, and resting our shotgun across her knees. Bambi and her mother had better watch out.

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