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It's November. Hunting season. Over 10 million hunters will take to the woods and kill about six million deer, though this massive culling will not be nearly enough to manage the population of 30 million whitetail in this country. That verb, manage—how easily it slots into place in the sentence, as if the deer living in the spaces between our houses and cities and highways were a lab experiment gone wrong. As if an Adam-and-Eve pair bolted a fence and begat a rogue species bent on eating all the hostas.
That "management" is done by the five percent of our friends and neighbors who head off with gun or bow to kill. As contributing editor Phillip Pantuso found out ("Who's Hunting Now?" page 56), most of these folks view themselves as conservationists and sustainability advocates, and they approach taking life as—well—a deadly serious matter. For the other 95 percent of us, deer are just a nuisance—destructive browsers in our backyards and potential automotive body work bills on our roads. As one of the 95 percent (though I did go hunting once, see below), I reconsider my encounters with deer.
The summer of my sophomore year of high school, I spent a week upstate with some classmates working in the kitchen of a camp for deaf children. The camp was run by the Marist Brothers, who taught us at Archbishop Molloy in Queens. You gotta hand it to the Brothers—in offering select students the "opportunity" to toil in the scullery, they didn't need to hire a dishwashing crew. And the fresh air was good for our spiritual development, or some such. My friends and I jumped at the offer, of course. Aside from a couple hours around mealtime, we ran amok on the Brothers' vast property in West Park: playing epic games of nocturnal Ringalario, building campfires by the shore of the Hudson River, racing golf carts down wooded embankments. (We even conned Brother Declan into taking us to the video store in Kingston, where we rented the German art film Has Anybody Seen My Pants? in which a Texas farm boy inherits a hotel in Germany that he soon finds out, after his pants disappear, is a brothel. We told Brother Declan it was an art film anyway.)
As the week progressed, our feral antics pointed toward their logical conclusion: someone getting hurt. Namely me. The final night of camp we decided to split into two squads and wage a water balloon war. The weather was warm and rainy and the collective mood tense. After a few scattered skirmishes, I snuck up on the enemy base by myself and right as I was about to pounce, balloons in hand, I slipped on the shale slope and punctured my kneecap on the rocks below. As I lay there bleeding, I saw something moving along the tree line. This city kid, not familiar with wildlife, thought it must be a dog. But it was a deer—my first deer!—stock still and staring at me. As the balloons rained down amid gleeful yelps, I thought I saw something like empathy in the deer's sad expression. I wondered if it had seen other injured deer crumpled in a similar manner, but without comrades to whisk them off to the hospital.
Four years later. Turtle and I are tripping on acid, taking in some truly spectacular fall foliage along the Ashokan Reservoir in his beat-up Honda, the leaves practically breathing in saturated yellows, reds, and oranges. On a side road off a side road, we pass a deer that's been hit by a car. Its front legs are broken and it's pinwheeling a bloody circle on the side of the road. I tell Turtle we need to go back and perform an act of mercy. We turn around. The deer is thrashing less than it was a minute ago. I approach and it does a quick spin its blood circle. I squat down and it looks at me resignedly but very much alive. I go back to the car and ask Turtle for his tire iron. Turtle says he doesn't have one. Turtle says all of this is a bad idea. Turtle refuses to get out of the car. I root around in the trunk of the car for a bat or a pipe or something but only find Turtle's dirty laundry. And a Swiss Army knife.
My plan is to use the awl, the leather punch, to puncture the deer's trachea with one swift blow. I take a deep breath, clench the knife in my fist, awl protruding between my index and middle finger, and walk over to the deer. The deer is empty-eyed and dead. Turtle and I spread a trash bag over his back seat and throw the deer in there and drive over to Scott's house. Scott's a hunter and knows how to butcher deer for meat.
My roommate Corey invites me to go hunting with some friends. Corey's family owns the side of a mountain in the Catskills. I'm the only one in the hunting party who's never held a gun before. I'm given a five-minute tutorial and told not to point the gun at anyone, probably not any deer either. But if I do see a deer, I'm to take a deep breath, point, and squeeze the trigger as I exhale.
At 7am, each of us heads off in a different direction with our rifle and a six-pack of beer. I sit under a tree for three hours and read Brothers Karamazov as I drink beer. I see no deer. Later, back at the hunting cabin, I'm told you're not supposed to read a book while hunting. You're just supposed to sit there and wait. But, I counter, when I'm waiting for the bus I sit and read, and no one seems to mind. Why is this different?
There are 4,000 vehicle-deer collisions a day in the US. Driving to Westchester from Kingston last week, I count a total of six dead deer on the side of the road along the thruway, Interstate 84, and the Taconic. Each looks more mangled than the next, reminding me of Lewis Thomas's words to describe roadkill: "mysterious wreckage." When I get home, I dig out the essay from, "Dead in the Open," and find this: "It is simply astounding to see a dead animal on a highway," Thomas writes. "The outrage is more than just location; it is the impropriety of such visible death, anywhere. You do not expect to see dead animals out in the open. It is the nature of animals to die alone, off somewhere, hidden. It is wrong to see them lying out on the highway; it is wrong to see them anywhere."