“I don’t know how long I can continue because the sorrow I see in these animals is exhaustive. I can’t help but experience it with them.” – Joe Hutto
I wanted to follow up my column about Carl’s deer with a scientist’s observations about and heartfelt relationship with deer in “Touching the Wild,” a beautifully filmed, poignant documentary on public television.
Deer are the main species killed in the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources’ killing business. It is time to pay attention.
Joe Hutto, a trained wildlife biologist, says in the video that his seven-year journey started with a chance encounter with a young mule deer buck in the sagebrush. The deer “had such a peculiar interest in me.” Exchanging a series of head nods, Hutto said, “that deer was willing to see me as an individual and he very clearly saw that I also granted him his individuality. I was not seeing something. I was seeing someone.”
“I wanted to be a part of these animals’ lives and I wanted them to be a part of mine.” Hutto did not mind going beyond the science and walking the line of sentiment. It took two years, spending every day with them, to build the beginnings of trust.
One day the lead doe approached him. He had named her Raggedy Ann. She overcame so much to let him into her life. Later he recognized her importance. She, not the big buck, was herd leader. He was slow to realize it because she did not lead with aggression. Her trust was his entry into acceptance by the herd. He named her daughter Rag Tag, the lead buck Babe, and Blossom was “the sweetest animal I ever knew, who became a great friend.” The deer immediately recognized him, but if another human appeared on the horizon, “they explode with fear,” Hutto said.
Hutto begins to see the landscape through their eyes and senses — experiencing the bears and wolves and humans that hunt them. Babe did not have the biggest antlers but did have the biggest heart. “He apparently had his own calendar because he always showed up the last day of hunting season,” Hutto said. He ran the gauntlet of a lot of hunters to get there.
One year, Raggedy Ann’s daughter, Rag Tag, stays with Hutto instead of following the spring migration. She was swollen with fawns — and he was able to put his hand on her abdomen and feel them kicking. He had the extraordinary experience of Rag Tag leading him to her secret place that sheltered her newborn fawns. No wild mule deer is likely to have shared this with any human before.
When her buck fawn dies, Rag Tag is distraught. Hutto observes her “exhausted and despondent” like any mother when a family member is killed. He documented: “Of course, in the case of a mother losing a fawn, the grieving process is clear — it’s almost irrefutable. And it can occasionally be two weeks before a doe is resigned to leave the side of her dead fawn. … Without question, this sorrow we have in common with other living things.”
When Raggedy Ann, the matriarch, is dying, the family stays close to her. After she dies, Hutto observes that “many deer lay down near her body … it was a very emotional thing to watch this behavior.” As a scientist, he asks, “Is this grief in mule deer? Is this sorrow?”
Hutto: “They do not cling less desperately to their lives than we do. They do not experience less fear. Their agony and their horror are absolutely real. And this is an individual that you know. … When you are that close to an animal, you cannot say this is the way nature works and just dismiss it that way.”
Hutto speaks eloquently of the human relationship to deer: “We must have always represented a conundrum of schizophrenic proportions. We’re that strange creature who will pull you as a helpless fawn from frozen water or cut you free from a tangled mass of barbed wire and then tomorrow kill your mother standing by your side and leave her gut pile in the sage brush for you to ponder.”
As hunting season arrives, Hutto is nervously watching orange vests arriving from every direction. “It is typical to see as many as 12 men in a day — not many animals can escape that.”
This time it is Babe the hunters are dragging. The hunter who killed Babe says it is the biggest buck he has killed in 20 years. Hutto has known him since he was a spotted fawn. “Just seeing Babe hauled off like that, it was like seeing a friend. We had a very personal relationship.”
“But mule deer are dying like flies for all sorts of reasons. This animal needs attention now and not 10 years from now. Now is the time to think about this. Now is the time to be more observant. This is a very special animal. … People are not paying attention.”
“They’re under assault from so many different directions — I see it in their eyes. I have come to know the lives of these wild creatures. I have become a member of the herd. I don’t know how long I will be able to continue because the sorrow that I see in these animals is exhaustive — I can’t help but experience it with them. This is hard to talk about. It’s taking a toll on me. It’s not healthy for me to continue. I have to bring all this to an end. … My loss will be much greater than theirs.”
After watching this documentary, Jason H. commented on the website, “I’m done hunting. Watching a deer mourn its dead. I’m just done.”
Are you paying attention? Will you help us stop the killing?
State Sen. Tom Tiffany, R-Hazelhurst, takes issue with a federal judge’s recent ruling that placed Wisconsin’s wolves back on the Endangered Species List. Tiffany, who is on the Legislature’s powerful Joint Finance Committee, told radio station WSAU that all state dollars now going into wolf research and management should be withheld until the federal decision is reversed. Call Tiffany at 608-266-2509 or email Sen.Tiffany@legis.wi.gov to tell him to support the federal court’s return of Wisconsin’s wolves to the Endangered Species List.