Injured white-tailed deer (Odocoileus virginianus) in Boise, Idaho.

My Encounter with this Deer Sent Me on an Emotional Rollercoaster

Warning: this article contains a graphic image that may upset more sensitive viewers

Traipsing through woods last fall, I nearly stumbled across a young mule deer settled in a dense thicket. I crouched down to admire him and show I was not a threat while contemplating how to get around this ungulate obstacle. Backtracking was an undesirable option; the light was quickly fading, and the fastest way home was forward. He, in turn, kept his eyes peeled on me, perhaps calculating whether making the effort to escape was worth it.

The stalemate lasted about fifteen minutes, and as you can tell from the title image, it was hard to avert from his gaze.

Eventually, I needed to press on. When he briefly turned his head, I gingerly stood up. This immediately caused him to jump. I took a step forward, and he started to move away. That is when I noticed with dismay his left hind leg was a bloody mess. Fur had been stripped from the top of the left haunch to the tarsal gland and loosely flapped around. My initial delight at having a serendipitous wildlife encounter turned into overwhelming sadness.

A young mule deer buck looks back at the author, while its left hind leg is a bloody mess.
An injured young mule deer buck discovered by the author in 2022. Photo credit life+wild.

In the meantime, the buck stopped and again watched closely to observe my next move. I decided to call a local veterinarian — just in case they had any ideas to help.

They, in turn, referred me to Fish and Game, where I got a predictable answer. If they were to intervene, it would merely be to euthanize the animal. The woman I talked to sensed my discomfort and added that deer frequently recover from crazy injuries, and there was a fair chance that the buck would make it.

Since he had started nibbling on some grasses, I took the opportunity to tip-toe past him, trying to cause as little disturbance as possible. He limped a little further off but seemed to realize I was harmless. As I cast a last backward glance at him, he was slowly hobbling to find a new shelter.

A young mule deer buck looking back at the author.
The injured young mule deer buck encountered by the author in 2022. Photo credit life+wild.

On the way home, I was deeply troubled. Had our interaction lessened his chances of survival? Then I realized the opposite might also have been true — I may have removed him from a more vulnerable spot by chancing upon him.

The rabbit hole.

Once I arrived at my computer, I searched for “injured deer” articles, trying to glean how to help my new friend and alleviate his suffering. Oh boy, what a rabbit hole!

A few results were nonsensical, written by bots, such as the following priceless gem:

It’s important to note that deer will probably sue the driver who hit them…Even if you don’t sue the driver, you can’t be sure that the deer will survive the crash. — from https://goldendayshealth.com/do-deer-feel-pain-when-hit-by-a-car/

Ironically, many posts were by hunters about ethically (i.e., cleanly) shooting deer to minimize their pain and suffering. Just google deer anatomy! The resulting treasure trove of articles also revealed how people still believe deer exist mainly for the benefit of hunters.

…to help others to learn to hunt what I believe it the greatest most magnificent creature God has given us to enjoy in many ways. — from https://www.the-whitetail-deer.com/Anatomy-of-a-Whitetail-Deer.html

I wasn’t interested in the demise of the deer but rather in its recuperation, so I narrowed down my search to scientific articles about pain. What I discovered is that we still lack much insight into how animals feel pain. Nevertheless, there have been some conclusions about how specifically deer may experience it. I’m guessing the interest in this research topic stems from the astronomical number of deer injured and killed by vehicles and humans every year.

Recreational hunters (not counting poachers) kill over six million white-tailed deer yearly, and road kill amounts to another two million. Those are staggering statistics, and they don’t even include culls in the name of conservation.

Back to the pain.

Like humans, deer (in fact, all vertebrates) have nociceptors, which are specialized nerve endings in their skin, muscles, and internal organs. These sensory neurons respond to noxious stimuli, such as burning, crushing, or cutting, which then lead to withdrawal reflexes, increased heart rate and blood pressure, and the sensation of pain.

However, deer have a lower density of pain receptors in their skin than humans, which may reduce the intensity of the pain they experience. Additionally, according to biologists, levels of beta-endorphins, which are natural painkillers, can be ten times as high in white-tailed deer as in humans.

Finally, blood clots more quickly in deer to stop bleeding. While alone this does not lead to faster recovery, it is an essential component of the healing process and sets the stage for improvement by creating a protective barrier at the injury site. Evolutionarily, this makes a lot of sense, given the damage bucks sustain during the rutting season.

In other words, the woman at Fish and Game had been correct. His odds were considerably higher than that of a human in the same conditions, making me much less anxious about his future. I crossed my fingers and sent healing thoughts in his direction over the next few weeks.

An adult mule deer stag, with a big set of antlers watches the author.
An adult mule deer stag encountered by the author in late 2023. Photo credit life+wild.

Fast forward to a happy ending?

Almost exactly a year later, I had two encounters with what I truly believe to be the same stag. Having filled out and boasting a magnificent (in other words, huntable) set of antlers, he was a glorious sight to behold.

Both times, he was trying to access the nearby river downstream from where we were and seemed unperturbed when noticing me, as if we knew each other. However, when other people approached, he became nonplussed and eventually bolted.

One might now conclude that our story has a happy ending, but this buck navigates a highly populated area to get to his preferred, more private, spot on the river. He has to dodge pedestrians and their dogs, bicyclists, and runners — not to mention vehicular traffic if he heads in the wrong direction.

To make matters worse, when I wrote an informational post on the Next Door app about giving him space, I was immediately admonished (and rightly so) by someone warning me not to post his location because of poachers!

Our hero must also avoid getting eaten by ticks and the threat of a fairly new adversary, Chronic Wasting Disease (CWD), which basically turns deer into zombies.

A profile of a mule deer whose face is pock-marked by scars possibly made by ticks.
A mule deer from spring 2023, whose face has been scarred by ticks. Photo credit life+wild.

Between habitat destruction, climate change, natural predators, disease, cars, and people bent on turning him into a trophy, this buck has to run a gauntlet daily. No wonder his life expectancy in the wild is only four and a half years — while in captivity, it can range from ten to twenty years.

The takeaway.

In her book Animal Ethics in the Wild: Wild Animal Suffering and Intervention in Nature, published in 2022, Catia Faria asserts that humans have an ethical obligation to intervene in nature to reduce the suffering of wild animals. This really should be a no-brainer for anyone who does not subscribe to the belief that non-human life exists purely for our benefit. Compassion and empathy are the keys to halting the sixth extinction.

Like Craig Foster in the movie My Octopus Teacher, I became vested in the well-being of a wild creature that I accidentally bonded with. And that is actually as it should be since we are all connected.

So, the next time you are out and about, see if you can forge a relationship with something wild. It will expand your heart and give you a greater appreciation for the miraculous variety of life on our planet.

An adult mule deer stag is walking towards the author.
Adult mule deer stag that the author forged a relationship with, in the fall of 2023. Photo credit life+wild.

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