Deer sightings are not unusual at one of campuses of my community college, located in the mist of a lovely forest preserve. You can often spot them early in the morning and late at night as they nibble at leaves or dart across the road.
It was unusual, though, to spot them at the other campus a week ago. This campus, located about ten miles to the east, is in a more built-up suburban area, butting up against a major thoroughfare. It was around 8am, and I was walking down the hallway on the second floor, when I spotted two deer in the snow. They weren’t more than twenty feet from the building, gracefully walking back and forth, tugging at the needles on the low trees branches and walking right up to the windows of the building.
I stared from the second-floor window, fogging up the glass. Then one of them looking up – directly at me! I was deer-struck. Each time an instructor entered the office, I asked, “Did you see the deer?” Everyone was taken by this rare close-up view of these two creatures. I called our ECE Center to let the teachers know so that they might walk the children down the hall to see them. A few minutes later a small group had gathered in front of the first floor window — the only barrier between them and the deer. Some had their palms up against the window, as if wishing they could touch them, while others knocked against the glass for their attention (followed by a gentle reminder from the teacher that watching quietly would likely encourage the animals to stick around longer).
They did stick around. They appeared healthy, of solid weight, and calm. They shadowed each other, nuzzled, and then curled up in the snow, side by side, and went to asleep. Many folks uttered concerns about their welfare and proximity to the busy street, and we all marveled at their clear comfort level with the surroundings — and the frozen, snow-covered ground, no less. They seemed familiar in this spot. One of our Center teachers said that word was they’d gotten separated from their herd in a nearby nature center and were being fed by concerned campus employees.
I was so captivated by them that I walked my students down the hall after my class to show them — nervously hoping they’d not run away. They were still there! The students loved watching them, and actually hung around for a while, talking together in the hallway. I’m not so sure that would have happened had we not had a couple of minutes together to make this unexpected field trip.
This close encounter brought back a memory of my own childhood enchantment with deer, and the countless hours of outdoor play — much of it in the woods. There was simply no better place to play. The woods held tall pine trees, narrow walking paths, huge rocks, honey-suckle vines, fallen trees, and creeks. Here is where fantasy play abounded: when we weren’t superheroes fighting villains or thwarting pirate onslaughts, we were digging for dinosaur bones, searching for fossils, or watching breathlessly for spirits of the long-dead, nervously waiting to see them to rise from the dry pine needles.
In addition to those escapades, I silently carried a fantasy that one day a friendly deer would step from behind a tree, look me directly in the eye, and become my instant companion, walking with me everywhere, eating gently from my hand, and falling asleep with its head in my lap. I would convince my mother and father of all the merits of having a deer for a pet, and make a solemn promise to care for the animal on a daily and permanent basis. I was always looking around expectantly, wanting to be ready, should the hooved beauty emerge. Alas, that never happened, and the fantasy shrank into the shadow of my memory.
My friends and I had contact with many animals, actually. We played outside for long stretches, most of the year, as the temperature allowed — only stopping to come home for lunch and then to return for the rest of the afternoon until dinner. That gave us a chance to have commerce with other forest wildlife — at least with those creatures that couldn’t outrun or out-slither us.
We had contact with lizards, small snakes, tiny green turtles, and caterpillars. My next door neighbor Chris had an affinity for these animals in particular, collecting them and basically colonizing them in his back yard. I would likely not have touched a snake or a lizard had we not grown up together. We were playing with these creatures by kindergarten, letting the snakes coil around our wrists, cuddling turtles and stroking their smooth shells, and creating nests for caterpillars in empty shoe boxes.
Daddy Long Leg Spiders and rolly pollies were other favorites to pursue, and, in the curiosity-driven manner of a child — poke, with the goal of observing the poor critter’s desperate survival response (curling up in a ball).
We certainly were not fully informed about all the animals we encountered, though, and so did not always treat them well. This ignorance was often unintentionally supported by adults. In the summer, after nightfall, we thrilled to catch lightening bugs, cupping them in our hands and then releasing them. But we also enclosed them in empty mayonnaise jars, convincing ourselves the insects could breathe because we’d punctured a few holes in the lid before screwing it on.
In another rather ill-conceived summer activity during family nights at our local community pool, adults dumped buckets of goldfish into the water, as we children eagerly jumped in, swimming frantically to snare the wriggling things in our hands. We were so excited to come home with even one goldfish tied inside a plastic bag — only to be devastated a day later when it expired. I can’t imagine the concentration of chlorine loading that pool water. We swam it in daily and were accustomed to the way it stung and reddened our eyes. I’m surprised those fish lasted as long as they did.
But my friend Chris was a true animal lover, and an animal rescuer as well. He loved his reptiles, but he cared about any animal he came in contact with. One time he found a frail yellow duckling with a broken wing, and named him Atlas. He understood — and told us — that Atlas wouldn’t live long. So we all crowded into a tiny dark fort made from a log pile in his back yard, holding vigil for several days, taking turns cuddling him and caring for him until he died. We carried out a solemn funeral and burial in the woods just beyond the log pile.
These encounters with animals were distinctly different from experiences we had with our own household pets. They felt different, I think, because such creatures were untamed, survived in the great outdoors, and had an air of mystery about them. They captured our imagination. But they also offered early lessons in nurture and responsibility.
Getting so close to those beautiful deer last week brought me back to these experiences. But it also reminded me of how vulnerable they are when they leave their habitat. A few years ago, on my way to work at the other campus, I was driving along and had to pull to a stop, as a police officer had blocked the roadway in both directions. I was stopped right behind the squad car. I craned my neck to look as he exited the car. Just beyond his car, to the left, I could see the antlers and part of the head of a deer on the road. I assumed it had been hit by a motorist. The officer opened the trunk of the squad car, removing a rifle. He quickly walked around to the front of the car, pointing the rifle at the deer. I put my head again the steering wheel. Two shots rang out. I kept my head down as he pulled the buck to the shoulder of the road. He returned to his car, moved it to the shoulder as well, got out, and waved me on. The remainder of my drive to campus was a bit teary.
So last week, two days after spotting the deer, when I returned to the building for my class, I looked everywhere for them as I walked the hallway and then returned to the office. I asked around. No one had seen them. Food left on a tray under a tree was still there, untouched. I looked for them again this week and have seen no sign of them. They may have been shooed away after all the attention they drew . Perhaps they’ve found their way back to the nature center. I hope they’re still around … somewhere.
I hope they’re alright.