Thursday, January 5, 2012

176. Nature answers own questions

One blistery day last winter, sometime in early January, I ran up to the store to get some things for dinner. When I returned, I came into the house to find my wife consumed in tears. Obviously I was concerned; now what happened I wondered?

Her voice was barely audible through her trembling, but she told me that the deer out by the feeder had a broken leg. She was crying because she thought the deer was in pain and suffering.

She was right; the deer's leg was severely broken at the knee. Watching her struggle to walk and eat brought tears to my eyes as well. It was pathetic-she had obviously been hit by a car, or brutally injured in some other way.

I had actually heard about this deer from my neighbor-he told me he saw her over the holidays. He said he called the authorities for help, as he also believed her to be suffering. I did not immediately tell my wife, as I knew it would break her heart. Part of me hoped something happened to her and the suffering ended--and my wife would be none the wiser.

But nothing happened to her and she often returned to our feeder. Usually by herself, but not always, she limped to our feeder for food. While her walk was hobbling, it is interesting that she could run on three legs when frightened.

We watched her when she came, week after week. Both inspiring and difficult, we wanted to make sure there was food out there when she came by. We get lots of deer, sometimes as many as twenty at a time. They tear up the far back yard, creating a muddy oasis, but we do not care--the grass, or something green, comes back each spring.

Last year was particularly awful-mud, rain, ice and snow. My wife pays the animals particular attention in the bad weather, "I feel so sorry for them," she repeats with each snow or ice storm. To ensure that our injured deer got food, we often made several trips to the feeders each evening. The other deer would come eat all the food, and nothing was worse than watching our injured deer stumble up the long path only to have her realize that there was no food for her. By then, it was too late--if we tried to take out food, she would scurry off on her three good legs.

However, the other deer eventually uncovered our prejudicial intentions-and used it against us. After they ate all the food, they would move into the brush--camouflaged from our vision-and wait for us to take out more food. We would no sooner be back in the house when they would return to eat again. Eventually, the deer grew arrogant, or tired, or smart, and would simply lay in the back yard, in the snow and mud, and wait for their feeders to be refilled. We care about them too, and their hunger, but nothing made us feel better than when our injured deer showed up with a full share of corn waiting for her.

Eventually spring came, then summer, and we did not see our injured deer anymore. While the deer come in the summer, it is not as frequent. This past summer, we often saw three young deer pillaging with four male turkeys in our backyard. We still feed them, but less frequently.

The absence of our injured deer led us to speculate what happened. Did she die, or was she taking a different path--as many of the other summer deer seem to do? One reflection, however, was consistent: Animals are amazingly tough, resilient and enduring. No matter the situation, they struggle to persevere. They do not complain--for who would listen? They live in a world that humans can no longer imagine--where survival is a daily endeavor. They exist cautiously, ready to run, or fight, at any moment. The search for food is exhausting, competitive and tenuous.

A couple of weeks ago, as the cold weather moved in, I believe I saw our injured deer--she graciously returned, wobbling to our feeders once again. This time the tears were that of joy. Her leg is still badly broken, irreparable, and still hard to watch, but perhaps a bit improved. She has a distinctive kneel when she eats. What a tough girl we thought!

As humans, it is difficult to know what an animal is thinking or feeling. Is she suffering, would she rather be humanly euthanized? It is not necessarily humane to put an animal down simply because it is difficult for us to watch-to remedy our suffering. Does she simply accept the broken leg and live her life the only way she now knows? Is she just happy to be alive? Only our injured deer knows the answers to these questions.

But ultimately, without human intervention, her fate is for nature to decide. The only thing we can do is buy more corn--hopefully a lot more corn.

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