Deer snorts, dog snarls—that’s all I hear. Then I see brown and white fur, clumps of it floating in water, the stream pinking with blood. Deer and dogs in water. Jake, ninety pounds of shepherd, taking the doe’s hooves and teeth. Becca and Little B, smaller but still good-sized, at the rear biting fur and flesh, getting kicked, holding on.
Yesterday, in the stand, I waited until the herd moved close to graze under my tree. Do it, I thought, trying to calm my breath. Still early, all day to work them up. Boom. First one down and dead, heart a holey mess. Work the lever. Boom. Second one shot in the chest, down after a long leap. Three deer in a day and freezer full for the year. Greedy bastard. Boom. But the third deer stumbled and I saw her leg, the blood, the miss. Trailed her for fifty yards into rhododendron where spoor disappeared, signs no longer signing. Bright drops of blood gone to the dull rust of oak leaf. I searched for two hours—back and forth through woods, back and forth through meadow—and found nothing. So I gave up to work up the two I got.
The next day, back in the woods, I hunted for her trail, gridded out thickets, crawled the hells. When I heard the dogs a quarter mile away, I ran with my gun.
She bedded by the stream. I should’ve known—deer go to water when they’re sick. Jake scented her to this tangle of greenery—joe-pye and ironweed, sweetgrass and jewel. I waded through tall plants toward the clamor, toward doe and dogs and their splashing fight. My gun was useless with the dogs so close. I dropped it on the bank and leapt onto the doe.
I try to kill three to five deer a year here on our Virginia farm. I do so to protect our woods, feed our dogs, and feed us. But I am a deer hunter who also tries to be a vegan. I like a good burger, and my mouth waters just thinking about a dip of mint chocolate chip ice cream. Yet I prefer a plant-based diet because I don’t want to drown my body in fat and excess protein. So my wife and I eat one deer a year, usually less. Our dogs eat all we can give.
The dogs are mutts, the dogs are family, the dogs are carnivores. For several years we’ve fed them a diet of meat, bones, and what we call their “veggie smoothie.” We want to replicate what they would eat in the wild, what their cousins, the wolves and coyotes, eat. So all of it is uncooked—the bones are only what they can chomp without injury, and the slurry of veggies imitates the stomach contents of a dead animal. The dogs love their chow, especially venison.
I grew up in a house my schoolteacher parents built in Newburg, Pennsylvania, a town in Cumberland County with a population of 300. Out our picture window, a quarter mile to the west, we could see my grandparents’ and uncle’s dairy farm, the place of my father’s birth.
My friend Andy lived in the opposite direction, about a mile to the east, on the other side of Newburg. When we were in our early teens, Andy’s father built a huge chicken house on their farm, for egg production. The structure was longer than a football field, and it sat on a hill overlooking town. From a distance, it looked like Noah’s ark had come to rest right there by Rill’s cornfield, except this ark held 60,000 chickens, and these birds would never stride down a plank to scratch and bathe in the dirt.
Andy and I both wrestled on the school team, and to lose weight some evenings we would race each other around the chicken house. The pole lights cast a yellow glare over the building’s white siding and the stubble of weeds. I could hear the soft murmur of birds inside and the purr of the massive fans that cooled them even in winter. Whenever we’d turn the last corner to run the length of the downwind side, I’d hesitate. The stink was so strong I could hardly breathe. Andy just bolted ahead and I tried to catch up.
One spring, Andy asked if I wanted to help change out the chickens. He promised good money and said lots of Amish girls were also getting hired. I showed up early on a Saturday to find semitrailers waiting at one end of the chicken house and people gathering at the other. I joined the crowd as we filed through the egg-sorting room, then through another doorway and into the massive cavern of birds. Andy had to shout over their din to tell me what to do. He ended with “Just don’t breathe through your nose and you’ll get used to it.”
The house had no windows, just strings of bare lightbulbs down each aisle. We walked on narrow planks that bounced under our weight, and below us was a pit filled with a year’s worth of chicken shit, ten feet deep. “Don’t fall,” Andy yelled, smiling as he pointed to the narrow gap between the walkway and the cages, which ran the length of the house. Each row was staggered above and behind the next in a pyramid form, so that the birds on the bottom wouldn’t get shat on by the ones above. Two narrow conveyor belts ran beside each row, one carrying food, the other carrying eggs. The wire cages measured three feet by three feet, and each held nine white chickens.
Our job: open a cage, grab nine legs—one from each bird—and yank them out. Don’t think and do it quick. Walk fast to the end of the house and hand the load to someone else to stuff them into crates, then slide the crates onto the semis.
Within minutes, feathers filled the air and my hands ached from pinching the live weight. “Don’t worry if you break a leg,” the guy beside me advised. “They’re just going to the factory. By this time tomorrow, they’ll be soup.” The birds tried to scramble to the backs of their cages. Some were bloody and featherless from being pecked. Others couldn’t move because their claws had grown around the wire floor. I felt their bones break as I pulled them free.
During the days that followed, a cloud of stench hung over the whole town as Andy’s father and hired help cleaned out the pit. They spread the manure over all of the surrounding fields, and feathers sometimes floated down onto Main Street, a mile away. A week later, after the workers disinfected the chicken house, we all returned to put new birds into the clean cages. This time the whole process ran in reverse. A bearded Amish man handed me nine birds by their legs, and like everyone else, I scurried down the long aisles to someone waiting to stuff them into the next empty cage, where they’d have a year to survive. This time we were careful about the legs.
Through most of my childhood, I worked on my relatives’ small dairy. When I turned sixteen and could drive, I went to work for a larger dairy, where, instead of milking twenty cows, we had seventy-five, and instead of twice a day, we milked every eight hours. The milking parlor consisted of a cement pit with elevated stalls on either side for the cows. We worked in that pit, where the air smelled like bleach and we stood at eye level to ten sagging udders. We’d clean their teats, slap on the milkers, and move to the opposite side to repeat. Five minutes later, the suction valves would make a wheezing sound because the bags were empty. Then we’d remove the milkers, open the gates, and start in on the next batch. We never really saw the cows’ eyes, never scratched their heads like my uncle did. The cows would often shit right there in the parlor, spattering the equipment and us.
My boss used to play college basketball at a small ag school, which meant he was quick and strong and towered over everybody. He also had a temper. After hours of getting shat on while looking at nothing but hooves and bags, he usually got cranky. Once, a cow wouldn’t move out of her stall, preventing the three behind her from moving on. The whole operation stopped, except the empty click-click of the milking machine. My boss picked up a two-by-four and started hitting the cow’s legs as hard as he could, swearing that he’d sell her to the slaughterhouse if she didn’t move. He broke that board before she finally limped away.
I drowned another deer, this one during winter, the snow a foot deep and hard-crusted. That time, too, Jake was ahead on the trail, out of sight. He gave his long, low, growling bark, warning that he’d come upon something big. I slogged through the snow to find a spike buck cornered in what we call Wishbone Hollow. I shouted and waved to run him off, but then I saw the mangled dangling hoof and shattered slender bone. Some other greedy bastard shot too low, lost the blood trail, or didn’t even try. So the buck stood on three feet, lowered his head, wanted to gouge Jake.
I moved to save the dog and drive the buck uphill, into cover of thick woods, but he charged me instead. He stumbled and Jake lunged for his throat. The spike buck twisted his neck and tried to drive Jake into the ground. We each retreated, waited, panting. The spike buck faltered—he’d already lasted too long with no grass, no way to paw through deep snow, no way to stop the blood. End this now, I thought, but my gun was a mile away.
I circled behind Jake to push the buck the other way, downhill, where he’d have to cross the stream, a ten-foot leap, easy for a healthy deer. If he made that, he’d have to jump a fence, uphill.
He charged out the mouth of Wishbone, out of sight. Jake followed him, and I knew from his barks that the buck didn’t make it across the stream.
I ran to find Jake at his head, the buck still fighting. From the bank, I leapt onto his back. The cold water stunned me, and the shallowness, too, the ice cutting my shin. This deer was all ribs—I felt the frame of him between my legs. I avoided the slender antlers and pushed down on his neck, leaned with my whole body and held. His kicks slowed. He breathed in cold water. Then he didn’t exhale.
Later, while butchering, I found something I had never seen in thirty years of hunting—a deer so lean it had no fat.
I hunted as a kid—popcans and starlings with a BB gun, groundhogs with Grandpa’s .22, pheasants and rabbits with a 20-gauge shotgun Dad bought for me one Christmas. I hunted deer with Grandpa’s antique .30-40 Krag, but I never shot any. Once, I sat beside a deer path on Blue Mountain in the bitter cold of winter. I fell asleep and woke to the sound of a doe swishing less than a foot beside me. We turned to look at each other before she snorted and ran away.
Those Pennsylvania woods I loved as a kid now have too few tree seedlings and wildflowers because of too many deer. On a recent visit home, I drove up into the mountains to find that much of the forest looked like a savannah, the understory open with long views deep into the trees. Instead of a dense undergrowth of flowers and young hardwoods, hay-scented ferns carpeted the ground—one of the few plants deer don’t eat. But on one tract the state had constructed a fence to keep deer out. There, the forest floor was thick with all sorts of saplings and wildflowers.
Scientists have extensively documented what a population of 30 million deer does to our country’s landscape. One study, on chronic over-browsing, discovered that “excluding deer increased total plant cover seven fold” and concluded that deer have dramatically changed the composition of our forests, converting “what was once a species-rich and lush understory of forbs and shrubs into a depauperate understory dominated by a few ferns, grasses, and browse-resistant trees.” It may take many, many decades for the forest to ever recover.
Put another way: we are drowning in deer.
Pennsylvania spends “approximately $3 million each year on temporary deer fencing to allow tree regeneration on state forest lands,” according to a 2009 publication from the state’s Department of Conservation and Natural Resources. The national scope of this problem is staggering. A publication from Cornell argues that annual estimates of deer damage are reported to exceed $2 billion nationwide, including $1 billion in car damages, more than $100 million in agricultural crop damage, $750 million in damage to the timber industry, and more than $250 million in damage to metropolitan households.
This report came out in 2001, and these figures have obviously risen since then. An estimate from State Farm Insurance claims that in 2012 the cost of deer-car collisions alone exceeded $4 billion. That translates into approximately 100,000 deer-vehicle accidents per month in the U.S., and the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety states these collisions “cause about 200 fatalities each year.” These statistics became personal not long ago.
My wife, Sarah, was on her way to work when a huge buck ran into the side of her car, tore off the mirror, and rolled across the hood and windshield. For a second, Sarah’s sky turned furry and brown. Then the buck landed on the opposite side of the road. There it writhed, alive but with a broken spine.
After she stopped, Sarah flagged down two men and asked if they had a gun. They thought she was crazy until they saw the deer floundering in the ditch. A woman living nearby came running with a rifle. “I saw the whole thing,” she said. “Heard it too. Thought you might need this.” The men took care of the buck while Sarah headed on to a classroom of first-graders.
Not all deer-car collisions end so well for the people in the vehicle, and rarely do the deer survive. Some days on my long commute, I’ll count three carcasses along a fifty-mile stretch of highway. Sometimes all that’s left is a huge red smear.
The doe I shot and rode, the fierce doe I needed to drown, did not want to die. She was fat, and even with three dogs at her and me on her shoulders, she shifted enough so that I lost my footing, and suddenly, eyes at her level, I too breathed water, heard it in my ears. I gripped her neck, righted myself to stand and push her head under again. Watched her breathe in, imagined her lungs swelling, her throat burning. White where she once saw trees. That buzzing nothingness, that electric snowing buzz I experienced as a child in the public pool, my mother behind the fence, she too unable to swim, watching, knowing the water was filling my ears, my nose, my mouth.
Deer know how to swim, though. Once by the Potomac, I watched a buck on the far shore, his tines a candelabra of sun. He dipped to drink, sniffed the wind before plunging in. He swam the quarter-mile expanse of the river fast, head up, reflection on the calm surface, feet plowing currents. He made it ashore, downstream, out of sight. I imagined him shaking once and moving on, rut on his mind. Overhead, the interstate bridge carried the boom and rattle of traffic.
Again I shoved down on the doe, her matted fur between my fingers, her weight a little less than mine. Die. Die now. Please die. The dogs had stopped barking. They snarled instead, ripped and yanked, the water turning red. Die. Now. Please. The kicking stopped. She gulped one last time. Then she went slack.
Enough, I yelled at the dogs, my throat raw. They stood back, panting, and watched me. I was panting too. I dragged the doe to the stream’s edge and sat, holding her slender hooves, trying to catch my breath.
But I couldn’t pull her up the three feet of bank. Her wet hooves kept slipping out of my hands. Twice I had to jump back in to re-grip. Finally, I just kneeled in the water to hug her body and heave it onto land. The dogs growled, and I had to rap Little B’s nose to get her to loose her hold on the doe’s flank. They crouched nearby, waited for me to turn.
I grabbed Jake’s collar and started to run, calling the others. They actually followed, looking back as we jogged the hill to the truck and knives and a long evening of cutting meat.
When I sliced her open, I found her lungs exploded, her chest full of blood and water.
Like this story? Subscribe to the Oxford American.