I went out to investigate why a police car was parked in front of my driveway on this sunny Saturday afternoon, officers standing there pointing towards the backyard. Years ago there had been a foot chase culminating in a suspect leaping the fence and being tasered right there in the yard next door, so nothing really would have surprised me.
However, the perp was a deer. Having lived in the rural woods and farms of this valley, deer have pretty much been a daily occurrence – decimating the daylily buds, hiding their fawns in gardens, stopping in a statue-like freeze when we encounter them among the trees, herds by the side of the road at dusk, leaping dangerously in front of our cars with a flip of white tail in the dark. In the small city we now reside in, finding one up close and personal in your driveway is a bit of a surprise though. I was trying to think what route he must have taken to navigate his way down these urban streets to find himself in my yard. I wondered why he chose here.
A young two-point White-tailed buck, perhaps a year and a half old, unafraid of our close proximity. He appeared to be browsing half-heartedly on the burning bush shrub hanging over the driveway. His ribs showed, there was something white on his nose, his eyes looked pained and unfocused and he was a bit unsteady. “He looks sick” I said to the officers. “Yes”, they replied. And then they got in their patrol car without giving any advice and left me with this sick deer in our yard.
A quick check to the Environmental Conservation website listed EHD (Epizootic Hemorrhagic Disease) virus as a likely culprit. It affects White-tailed deer and is carried by biting midges. The deer have no immunity and once infected with EHD, they usually die within 36 hours. The disease is not contagious between deer and cannot be spread to humans. After a cold frost, the midges die and the deer are no longer vulnerable to infection. He seemed to exhibit the signs. This is not a pretty disease.
I called our animal control office for advice and was told they don’t handle deer and that I needed to contact the Department of Environmental Conservation. I was told that if the deer dies on my property it was my responsibility to dispose of it too. That’s just great. I thanked him and contacted the DEC. Being a Saturday afternoon, I only reached a recording, where I left a message. I also sent them an email complete with photos as suggested on the site. In the meantime, a few neighbors who had seen the deer called the city police, but they did not return again. The woman next door came over and made some calls somewhere else, which elicited no response. Apparently this was my problem.
I brought the deer some water, which he left untouched, and stood outside to see if he was going to move on to some other destination. He circled the driveway, then inserted himself between the significant other’s car and the garage and stood there for a while. I left him for a few minutes. When I returned to check, he was lying down the way deer usually bed down for the night. I figured maybe he was going to rest and regain some strength as the afternoon was fading. But then he was up again, standing in my garden and browsing aimlessly on the hostas. I was hopeful that perhaps this was a good sign, his attempts to eat. But he swayed a bit and appeared unstable. Then he went back to stand behind the car again, as if to seek some privacy.
I posted my dilemma on Facebook and was offered many suggestions, most of which had already been pursued. The number of a wildlife rehabilitator was offered. Clearly there was no rehabilitating this deer, but perhaps she had some suggestions. She said unfortunately, they don’t handle sick deer and directed me to the DEC, which I had already tried to contact.
Darkness ensued. At about 10pm a friend found and messaged me a phone number to call a DEC dispatcher, which I was thankful for. I correctly surmised nobody was going to be dispatched this late on a Saturday night though, and decided to call early the next morning.
From this point on I will not be posting any photos.
I could not sleep. My worry and sadness concerning the welfare of the deer and my frustration about not finding any available municipal support was weighing heavily. We have a security system, which the deer continued to set off, recording as he walked around and around in an aimless circle in front of the garage. At about 2am I came downstairs to discover him standing facing our back steps, his tail bizarrely wagging back and forth rapidly, like a dog’s. I went back to bed with an aching heart. At 4am I found him lying curled up in the center of the driveway, near the out-take vent for the furnace. The temperature outside was in the high 30’s. Maybe the vent was providing a small source of heat or comfort. He had knocked down a large panel of stockade fence we had leaning against the house, perhaps in an attempt to get behind it. The deer appeared dead, the contents of his last meal (my hostas) regurgitated, his bladder had let go, pellets on the pavement. Relieved to think his suffering had ended, I called the SO to come outside and help me move him out of the way. But when we touched him, we found he was still breathing. I tried not to lose it.
At about 6am I called the DEC dispatcher who said someone would get back to me. When they finally did get back to me, it was the dispatcher saying nobody would be available until at least 8am and that the County Sheriff’s office should be called, assuring they would take care of the deer and remove it. I called the County Sheriff, who said call the DEC. I told him the DEC referred me to the them, and was then told that it is the City Police’s jurisdiction. I explained the entire chain of calls I had made, starting with the City Police, animal control, the DEC, a wildlife rehabilitator, the DEC dispatch and finally to the County Sheriff. He said deer are becoming a great problem in our city but there is not much they can do about it, as you cannot allow deer hunting within city limits. A resident cannot discharge their own gun in the city. He said it is the city’s responsibility and then added, “Deer die all the time”. Of course they do. I am no stranger to dead deer. But they usually die in the woods (or on the roads), not in a city driveway, its ongoing struggle and pain in full view of the street and neighbors. This situation had taken on a surreal, quality, a bad dream.
I called the DEC dispatcher a second time and got a different person. He said he would send someone out. Another hour and a half went by. I called them a third time and got a recording. I left a plaintive message. I kept checking on the deer, thinking it had finally passed, only to find it still breathing, still trying to swallow.
With daybreak Sunday came the migration of dismayed neighbors to our driveway, watching the dying deer. I wished so much this had been happening in the back of the yard, away from the view of everyone. It felt somehow undignified, as if his passage deserved some privacy, but perhaps that is my own projection.
It is of note it was only the women, reeling with compassion, standing in my driveway. The pregnant woman next door, the new mom across the street, a few grandmothers. The husbands, the boyfriends, my own SO remained in their houses or went about their business down the street or in their yards. The women, looking at each other with grief on our faces, desperately dialing whatever numbers they could on their cell phones, trying to get someone to come. At one point the buck struggled to get up and then fell – we all gasped. I could not bear it. Some of the women turned away.
At that point I called the State Police, with a hitch in my voice, explained the lack of response from anyone and implored them to please come out and put this deer out of his misery. He said they would send someone right over. In the meantime a rehabilitator called me back with private numbers of two DEC officers to try. The State Police did not show up, but shortly after that call was made, two City Police officers and one DEC officer did arrive. Perhaps the state guys lit a fire under them. Or not. I’ll never know.
The City Police officers were courteous and compassionate. They were masked and maintained distance. The DEC officer arrived, got out of his truck, mask-less, and spat in the street in front of us all. None of us said anything but I saw the city cops exchange glances. He was nice enough, but he spat again on the sidewalk and again in my driveway, which was pretty gross. I don’t know what was going on with him and the spitting. I kept myself from saying anything about spitting and COVID or whatever, because at this point I just wanted someone to put the deer out of it’s misery and I was glad for his arrival, was afraid any comment might change the trajectory of where this was going. But there was a serious “ewww” factor there.
DEC and City discussed what they were going to do. City Cop called his supervisor, who arrived in another squad car. They determined someone had to shoot the deer, or “dispatch” the deer, as they put it. It was decided one of the city cops would do the deed. They had the neighbor move her car, asked a few others to clear the area and move across the street. They asked me to stand behind their squad car, so I stood there with another officer. They pulled the deer off the pavement and onto the grass to avoid ricochet. The officer put in his ear plugs, aimed, and shot.
I have family and friends who hunt. I am no stranger to seeing dressed deer, have prepared and eaten venison. While I am not a fan these days, it is part of my past rural life. But there was something different about being present for the “dispatching” of a suffering deer on a city street. I watched because I felt I needed to see this whole thing through from beginning to end. He chose to die in my yard, I had become part of his journey and he of mine. But I cannot even tell you where the officer made the shot, I have totally blanked out on that, even though my eyes were wide open.
While standing there I cried just a little, some tears, not for the ending but for all of it. On some level I feel like I failed that buck, that I could not relieve his struggle. The end came much too late. The city officer asked me if I was OK. They were very kind. We actually have some great police in this city – in the past almost every contact we have had with them, be it for actual problems or while they respectfully oversaw local protests, has been decent. So I asked them why this deer had to suffer for almost 18 hours before someone would come out and help. The DEC officer explained that if the deer had been standing around that there was nothing they could do until it was down. The police explained the same. I told them it would have been nice from moment one if the original officers who noticed the deer the previous day had notified the DEC and also provided us with some kind of contact numbers. I think if a deer is sick, be it standing or down, someone should address it. The logic of this system is flawed. Something is broken here. The DEC officer gave us his card should we need it again. They loaded the deer on a trailer at the back of his vehicle to be taken for testing. I gratefully thanked the officers. After they left I went out with the hose and some bleach to clean up the aftermath.
Eighteen hours of suffering endured by this beautiful, magical being that didn’t have to be. My sister-in-law said, “There is nothing more horrible than watching any living being die when you can’t do anything at all. It shreds your heart.” Indeed my heart and head hurt today. A friend said, “Hugs, my friend. That will stay with you forever.” I know she’s right.
The passing of the buck is a metaphor – the slow death of a buck and passing the buck of responsibility. It seems to be of a reflection of 2020 overall.