Deer in the Headlines


When we lived in Newfoundland, Pennsylvania, deer hunters wandered the back roads every weekend in the fall.  Carrying their guns or their bows and arrows,  the men walked with confidence over our land, vigorously disregarding the no trespassing signs we posted over our five acres.   I wouldn’t go outside in October unless I was covered in orange clothing.  If you didn’t wear orange, you could be mistaken for a deer and, if you were shot, well, that was just your own stupid fault.

The former owner of our country house named it Deer Haven.  She placed a kneeling deer made out of plaster next to the driveway.   The lady was dead serious about the “Haven” part.  She became famous for running out her front door at the first sight of hunters, waving her hands, and yelling at them to get the hell off her property.   We were never so bold.  As weekend and summer visitors, we didn’t feel as if we’d earned her native privilege to protest so vigorously.   Besides, we  knew that even if we did chase them away on a Saturday, they’d be back on our land Monday morning, hours after we’d gone back to New York.  Guns blazing, Bows humming. We did keep her iconic deer statue in place, peeling and discolored from the hard winters.

Hunters were always ready to defend their actions.  They weren’t killers, they argued, but noble warriors who suffered for their sport, rising at the crack of dawn to track down the white tailed deer.   They admired their prey and would only hunt down the fit, the brave, and the wily, never the weak or the sickly.  Their stories were full of the powers of mind and body that the deer possessed.   It was an honor, they insisted, to cull such noble creatures. That was the inevitable reason for shooting a deer.  Too many of them would ravage the land.  They needed to be kept under control for their own sakes.

And there were indeed noble hunters in the land.  Doc the Vet was one, a man who valued the life and the death of the animal he hunted. You can read more about Doc in my memoir, The Animals.  One year I asked him what he was having for Christmas Dinner.  “Bear heart,” he said.  “It’s only fitting, a noble dish for an important holiday.  And it’s tasty.”

But some of the hunting that I witnessed those days in Pennsylvania seemed  ignoble and unheroic.   Every fall Bow and Arrow hunters would make trips to the cider mill to buy apple peels, cores and pulp that had survived the fruit press.  They paid good money for these leavings.  Some cider mills refused to cooperate, but most could be talked into supplying the hunters with their bait. Hunters would deposit the fragrant mash around a tree large enough to hold a man and small enough to climb.  Attracted to the good smell, deer would trot on over to scarf up their treat.  Local hunters could seed their deer lures every other day.  Weekend hunters weren’t so lucky and had to imagine that their tree would remain in their quarry’s memory all week long.  After about a month of careful seeding, as soon as the Bow and Arrow season opened, the hunter would place his apple mash once more around the tree.  Then all he needed to do was sit happily in his tree waiting for his unsuspecting quarry to arrive.  It was guaranteed.  The deer would inevitably be drawn to the sweet smell of rotting apple.  Just as  she bent her head down to feed, the hunter would pull his bow string back and let the arrow fly straight into her body.  Like shooting fish in the proverbial barrel.

I never witnessed this primal scene.  I knew that hunters seeded our trees in our absence, but whenever we were staying for the weekend, we made loud noises as soon as the hunters trespassed onto our property.  No deer  would go near apple mash  as long as we made our noises.  It was when we weren’t present that hunters trespassed onto our land to practice their sport with vigor.  You can google “Bow and Arrow hunting” and see many videos showing the hunters sitting in the trees, sometimes making their hit.  It just takes one arrow to pierce the skin of a deer and bring that animal crashing down to the ground.  

These videos do not show hunters seeding trees with apple mash.   I am not suggesting that the hunters who videotape  their  kills use unfair methods.  In fact some  claim that they hunt to provide meat for the poor.  Others explain that they are culling  deer to keep them from overpopulating.  Their videos can emphasize the beauty of the deer as well as the deadly power behind the bow–power transmitted into an arrow that can set an animal spinning into the air before it falls down dead.  Beauty is juxtaposed to heart stopping scenes of death while a banjo picks out a tune in the background.  Cheering us up or unnerving us?  It depends, I guess, who listens and watches.

The saddest hunting stories I heard around Newfoundland  involved the great black bears that lived in caves nearby.  The most famous bear in the 1980′s was Frieda, an elderly lady past childbearing.   She was seldom seen, but when sighted, behaved with great formality.  All of the Black Bears were tagged.  We could always find out approximately where they were in the neighborhood.  In fact they were as close to being neighbors as animals could be.  But during the short black bear season, about four days in late fall, and another four days in the winter, our friend the bear became Game.  That’s when some hunters would hang bags of meat in the trees near Frieda’s cave.  A hungry bear, attracted by the stench, would rear up on his back legs, swat the bag, and bring it down to devour it.   As the bear ate up the bloody meat, it could be shot dead by a hunter sitting high in a tree.  Nobody every killed Frieda, at least not when we lived in Newfoundland.  She was too old and too smart to be taken in so easily.  But younger bears could, and did, fall for such cheap tricks.

I’ve had ambivalent feelings about hunters for years, long after I left our house in Pennsylvania.  It’s not all negative.   I can understand  the lure of tracking an animal.  And I can always identify with hunters being out in nature in all weathers, taking risks to make contact with another species.   But last weekend I read a long and complicated article about hunting written by Ryan Sabalow, a reporter for the Indianapolis Star.   I urge you to click on the link to Sabalow’s well-researched and fiercely-written article.  Ryan Sabalow is the real thing.  I love newspaper people.   My brother Tom Houlihan and Patricia Briske Houlihan, my sister-in-law are both extraordinary journalists. They worked in the Chicago area for many years on the late lamented Star and other South Suburban newspapers.   Everything they wrote and edited was done with respect and care and passion.  Sabalow is their kind of writer.

Sabalow and others on the Indianapolis Star spent eighteen months researching and writing the story of hunters willing to pay up to $40,000 to shoot penned in deer.  Sometimes the decrepit deer is barely able to walk under the weight of their oversized antlers.  The buck is shot while enclosed in a high-fenced pen.  You might say it is “executed.”

Why are they treated so badly, these antler bearing deer?  Because they are bred to grow unnaturally large antlers for hunters who want something significant to hang on the wall.  What could be more telling than giant antlers, the sign of a buck’s power.  In the wild, a buck with a large rack of antlers has lived a long life.  His antlers truly are a sign of his cunning and his staying power.  It takes a talented hunter to take down such a wise beast.  You could even argue that the buck’s power can be magically transmitted to the hunter who brings it down.

In our brave, new genetically-enhanced world, there is a much easier way to nail large antlers to the wall.  All you need is money.  Hard Cash.  Money to pay for the right to point a gun at a young buck with fast-growing antlers who is penned in, unable to run away.  The buck pictured below has antlers so large that they look deformed.  He is named X-Factor.  Nobody shoots the X-Factor.  He’s far too valuable as a source of sperm to produce heavily-antlered prey.  Sabalow’s article includes a video showing eager, almost reverent suppliants surrounding another genetically engineered buck, waiting to buy sperm being milked from him.

grotesque antlers

photo credit, Russ Bellar, from Ryan Sabalow’s article in the Indianapolis Star.

Shooting deer in a pen may be more problematic than shooting fish in a barrel.  “High-fence hunting” can lead to the spread of a debilitating deer disease.  Penned deer greatly magnify the threat of Chronic Wasting Disease (CWD).

Russ Bellar, the hunter who brought X-Factor into the world, laughs at the threat of CWD.  His critics from the Department of Natural Resources are simply jealous.  They know that they can never earn the hundreds of thousands of dollars that he can.  How much money do you think that DNR inspectors earn, anyway?   Who gives them the right to complain?  It would seem that money grants rights.  And in high-fence hunting, it’s all about money.  What does the DNR know, anyhow?  If you don’t have enough money, you don’t have the right to complain about people smart enough to invent such a noble sport.

The entire business makes me nostalgic for the hunters seeding our trees with sweet apple pulp. They at least were required to climb into a tree and wait for their prey.