Feeding the deer

  • Jaime O'Neill


I live in a California mountain town that's perched on a ridge that ascends toward the higher Sierras. The place was initially called Dogtown, and it boasts the distinction of being the site where California's biggest-ever gold nugget was found. The town was supposed to be called "Magnolia," but the poor spelling and/or penmanship of some forgotten miner rendered that word as "Magalia" by the time it was duly deciphered and recorded in Sacramento.

There's a whole lot of deer up here. At 2,100 feet, Magalia is just high enough and far enough from the bigger communities in the flatlands to have become densely populated and poorly zoned, with lots of one-third to one-half acre lots dotted with modular homes, trailers and some expensive mansions on the canyon rims. There are also lots of churches and a lot of retirees. This is a place where the local Native peoples did the Bear Dance and hunted deer in these mountains long before the Gold Rush brought white folks here.

I've taken to feeding the deer, though most people will say I shouldn't. I've come to think of these critters as my neighbors, since we inhabit the same forest. I buy a 50-pound sack of "Wet COB" every 10 days or so. Wet COB is a mixture of corn, oats and barley, hence C-O-B. The patrons of my little deer-dining establishment like it, probably because the ingredient that makes it "wet" is molasses.

Word has spread in the deer community about this new "in" spot, a place where the food and service are pretty good. What began with just a doe and a fawn has gradually expanded to include three additional does, plus two young bucks, one with a broken spike. There's also a gorgeous older buck with a really impressive rack of antlers.
My involvement with these deer might just be a symptom of advancing age. I've always loved animals, but now my days aren't spent chasing a livelihood as doggedly as I did when I was younger. You know what the poet Wordsworth said: "Getting and spending we lay waste our powers / Little we see in Nature that is ours. ..."

Since I started doing this, the deer have come to feel safe and comfortable. Now, there are mornings when they move off a mere five or six yards when I go out to feed them, though I doubt the day will come when they will eat from my hand.

Those who will disapprove of me for feeding these deer are likely to say I'm endangering them, reducing the instinctual fear they have of my kind and thus making them more vulnerable to those who don't share my sappy liberal desire to turn them into welfare recipients instead of real, conservative American deer who know that handouts are, inevitably, destructive of moral fiber.

I may think I'm being nice to the deer, but I'm actually destroying their initiative, undermining their resolve to work for a living. But by my lights, these deer are more than earning their keep. They are beautiful to look at, and watching their social interaction is well worth the cost of running this little social program.

A few times, the two smaller spikes have tried to eat simultaneously, their sharp horns scraping, far too close to each other's soft brown eyes. I worry about them, rather like a parent, which may be why this activity tends to be an old-person pastime, converting forest creatures into surrogate children. I think the shrinks call it "transference," but it mostly feels like plain old love.

I would not want to know a fellow human being who could watch these deer eating every day and not feel some measure of affection for them as they share our brief blink of sentience on this planet. So I worry about that beautiful buck, and even about the does, because there are poachers out there, not to mention creeps who take an inexplicable pleasure in hurting other animals.

More than a few meth addicts claim this ridge as their home, people with pit bulls and mean streaks, and they lack the gentleness I see in these animals. But I cannot spread a blanket of security big enough to protect the deer from all the cruelties and dangers in the world. I cannot shield them from the encroachments of my kind. What I can do is feed them corn, oats and barley sweetened with molasses, take pleasure in watching them eat, then swaddle them with unspoken hope as they take their leave.

Jaime O'Neill is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). He writes in Magalia, California.

Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at betsym@hcn.org.

Robb Cadwell
Robb Cadwell
Jan 26, 2012 06:25 AM
It is illegal to feed deer in California. I've forwarded this story with the link and your name to the California Department of Fish and Game. Penalties include fines and possible jail time. I hope they make an example of you.


I often read many ignorant things about wildlife here or other places on the web. This one about takes the cake, congratulations. Ignorance about wildlife surely isn't confined to California and Californians, though they are often the most astounding in their ignorance. I think the total disconnect from any reality comes not from one specific geographic area but rather from America's shift to cities and the urban environment. People make up stories in their mind to try to make sense of a nature they are so totally disconnected from.

One time I read a short article here at HCN putting forth the idea that the way we Americans deal with wildlife issues might well be one of the defining environmental issues confronting us today. The writer invited comment, he got none. I understand why.

Tim Baker
Tim Baker Subscriber
Jan 26, 2012 07:22 AM
There are good reasons why feeding wildlife like deer is frowned upon by wildlife professionals and often illegal as Robb pointed out: feeding concentrates animals and increases the likelihood of disease spread (like chronic wasting disease); the animals tend to concentrate near houses and roads which increase the probability of getting hit by vehicles; artificial feeding tends to increase the population which then increases the damage done by over-browsing; and increased deer populations tend to attract more mountain lions which then get shot because they're too near humans.

Hence, feeding animals is one of the most selfish actions humans take -- it's not for the benefit of the animals or the ecosystems at all, it's all for the personal satisfaction of the feeder.
Dale Leavitt
Dale Leavitt
Jan 27, 2012 05:35 PM
A very interesting and thoughtful article. Often government officials treat wildlife as their personal property and treat rural dwellers with disdain if they interact with wildlife at all. A friend of mine in rural WA feeds elk that gather in his fields during the heart of winter. Local children gather to watch..and the local wildlife officials quickly tried to shut him down, citing studies almost 40 years old, all the while feeding elk themselves at taxpayers expense only miles away. Feeding wildlife, including wild birds, does no harm as long as it is localized and done on a small scale. It actually lowers stress levels for animals and in some cases keeps animals from starvation during winter. It is the other readers above who ware disconnected with reality...and who are probably armchair environmentalists.
Carly McKean
Carly McKean Subscriber
Jan 29, 2012 01:59 AM
It is unfortunate that you are so separated from normal human emotion that you do not recognize that you must allow people to interact with the things that you want them to care about. Nature is not a separate entity from humanity to be admired from behind a glass wall like a museum showcase. Both man and the environment are living entities that interact with each other in innumerable ways. If you wish for people to value nature and wild species, you must allow them to understand those species in a way that builds value for them. Such interactions may not create the artificial condition in which humans do not exist, but that is not the way in which the ecosystem evolved.
I am glad to see that you are concerned about the welfare of animals, and your vigilance in the matter leads me to ask just what you have done for the homeless and otherwise poorly protected people in California lately.
Wes  Swafar
Wes Swafar Subscriber
Jan 30, 2012 10:27 AM
I would tend to agree with Robb. Jamie, the author, does not seem to recognize that this is an inherently selfish action, masqueraded as love for animals. Please, live and let live. You are doing no one any favors.
Dwayne Edwards
Dwayne Edwards
Jan 30, 2012 02:30 PM
I personally feel the Essay was good. There is a clash of ideologies between the author and the readers who have been nice enough to comment. Perhaps one's morals are not based on the laws of men; rather, they are based on the relationship to the situation. The conflict remains, and is simply this: Some people believe that the Dept. of Fish and Game are the rule makers when it comes to wildlife. Others argue that nature is. And both will feel correct because morals are not made of rights and wrongs even if they are used decide right and wrong. I think Jaime knew this would piss some people off and just wanted to see you all dance.
Meg Keoppen
Meg Keoppen
Jan 31, 2012 09:42 PM
Here in the Sierra Foothills, the deer are everywhere. They are a hazard on the roads and even in the yard. I had a standoff with one buck who wanted the goats hay. He won.
I am writing to tell you that there are too many deer, not enough predators....and a deer is on my porch looking to eat my pumpkins right now. They decimate landscaping plants with few exceptions and of course would love to get into the vegetable gardens. Yes, there are lots of people living close together so shooting firearms is unsafe and illegal.
I like the deer and I would eat them, too, if I were able. Balance is needed.
Dale Leavitt
Dale Leavitt
Jan 31, 2012 10:35 PM
Damn. I'm really confused now. I'm a hunter..so if I shoot and kill an elk next week that is NOT an inherently selfish action and nobody will report me to F&W but if I leave corn cobs out tonight for the purpose of feeding the few deer that live in the river bottom where I live that IS selfish and some of you want me to pay a hefty fine to boot. Life does seem like a contradiction to me at times.
Robb Cadwell
Robb Cadwell
Feb 01, 2012 07:13 AM
Dale shooting an elk next week IS an "inherently selfish action" and if you gleefully brag about it on the internet and post your name and the town you live in I'll send all the particulars to your state department of fish and game. Because next week is out of season and you are breaking the law. I'd hope they not only fine you but toss you in the county hotel to reflect on your misdeed. By poaching an elk out of season not only are you robbing that animal from the people of your state but giving hunters everywhere a bad name.

When I first read this article the thing that jumped to mind was Ted Nugent, NRA spokesman, busted last year in California for baiting deer. It's incumbent upon anyone doing more than looking at wildlife to know and understand the laws and traditions of the state you are visiting. I only wish Ted had done time.

I'd suggest that anyone who doesn't understand the laws of their state concerning wildlife first visit the web page of your state Wildlife department and if you still don't understand something give them a call. State departments of wildlife are still well funded by taxes collected on sales of fire arms and hunting and fishing licenses, there are people just waiting to be of help to you.

California enacted it's feeding of wildlife laws through the legislature in the early 90s for exactly these sorts of situations. Being a liberal I happen to have a belief in the expertise of government scientists and a respect for the rule of law. If you don't understand why feeding deer is wrong, scientifically, morally, legally, I'd suggest doing some reading or contact your state, or as a last resort simply follow the law.

Meg the problem might not be too few predators but too many. Often the safest place for an ungulate is in the burbs where cats are shy to follow. There are many methods of keeping deer at bay, high fence, unappetizing foods, less restrictive hunting laws are a few. Get a bow license and seek out parcels of land not yet incorporated into the town.

Some responses to my initial comment are pure California.
Cathy Koos Breazeal
Cathy Koos Breazeal
Feb 01, 2012 09:54 AM
I am also a resident of the rural Sierra foothills and I am compelled to reply. As one respondent mentioned, it is illegal to feed deer in California. Additionally, by bringing that many deer into your immediate back yard, you are also inviting their predators into your yard. Mountain lions are opportunists and when (not "if") the mountain lion arrives in your yard, it will not stop at the deer, but will consume your cats and dogs, too. And small children are extremely in danger because of their habit of sitting on the ground to play, thereby looking like easy prey.

If after considering the legal and safety issues, you still feel compelled to feed the deer, at least feed them something like alfalfa hay. COB, wet or dry, is loaded with sugars and heavy grains and has a tendency to compact in the first stomach and decay. If you think about their natural diet of leaves, small forbs, and branch tips, hay is going to be a much more natural product to feed. I realize that COB is in a convenient sack and a bale of hay weighs upwards of 100+ pounds, so think about the well being of the animals, rather than yourself. What will happen to that herd of deer when you decide to move, or go on vacation, or become too ill to put the feed out?
Volcano, California
Dale Leavitt
Dale Leavitt
Feb 04, 2012 03:45 PM
Not to beat a seemingly dead horse but the headline below, copied from today's(2/5/12)on-line Seattle Times illustrates my point. And just for the record, I don't feed animals in my front yard because I have no front yard..and I have predators in the vicinity all the time. And Im not "gleefully bragging" about shooting an elk (it was hypothetical)...though if you folks south of the Roque River keep making things up something might stick eventually.

More than 100 bighorn sheep are being fed by the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife at the foot of Cleman Mountain west of Yakima next to the Naches River. Several hundred elk are gathered at the Oak Creek feeding station a few miles away.
robert lewis
robert lewis
Jul 27, 2014 06:20 AM
Jaime O'Neill - what a wonderful article
Dwayne Edwards - best comment
Dale Lockwood
Dale Lockwood Subscriber
Jul 27, 2014 06:04 PM
Not a good idea to feed them year around,also the chance to spread diseases increases.
John Cowperthwaite
John Cowperthwaite
Mar 12, 2016 12:50 AM
So, we can hunt, and kill wild animals? Just do not help them. Got it. Feel like 1930's Europe? Should we paint something on the deer to identify them? We have become so full of ourselves as humans. We pass these ridiculous laws and then pay idiots to enforce them. Feeding the Deer?? What about the Deer that eat those field of pot and die? What about REAL PROBLEMS IN THIS WORLD?? I love the fact that at least wildlife exists. Wildlife at least is beautiful to look at.
WE TAKE, AND WE TAKE, AND WE TAKE. We cannot keep taking forever. I live in the mountains and there are starving animals all around me. DUE TO HUMANS TAKING OR POLLUTING THERE RESOURCES. I WON'T FEED THEM BECAUSE IT IS ILLEGAL BUT, I THINK IT IS WRONG.
Dale Leavitt
Dale Leavitt
Mar 12, 2016 03:46 PM
People love to make rules...this or that...we've become of society of morons with every potential decision pre-ordained by the government. Every size fits all. If you have a squirrel living in your woodpile you had better check on local wildlife regulations before you bring out your bag of peanuts. And you wouldn't want to make any of these other readers angry, either. Here's some irony. I'm not allowed to feed the deer on my river bottom property...but my neighbor was able to secure a special license to kill 8 deer (the same deer, by the way) from the local herd to alleviate crop damage. Life is strange.
John Cowperthwaite
John Cowperthwaite
Mar 12, 2016 06:56 PM
If we could simply replace what we take, Nature could survive. Easily! End of story. We could live a life that is HARMONIOUS with the planets inhabitants. Nature is a miracle we should take care of. It is fragile and irreplaceable.
 If we thought about our future on this planet maybe, we would change.
We destroy whole eco systems and think it is O.K. to do so. In the name of "Good Business"??
More evil and destruction has occurred in the name of "It's nothing personal, it's just good business."than any other excuse in history.
What if a race of more powerful beings decided HUMANS were the problem? How would we feel? To be outcasts on a planet that was designed for wildlife.
Scorned, driven out of our homes. Everything taken from us. Wandering around trying to survive. Wondering when some idiot going to put an arrow in you.
Humans were given the opportunity to co-exist on this magnificent planet,with these magnificent beings.
Too many people are still extremely barbaric, selfish and self important.
Few remember that we are caretakers of a planet that DOES NOT BELONG TO US.


As caretakers of this land, value the individual plants, the wildlife, the predators, and even those heartless humans among us, that live here too.
HUMANS have created this out of balance, polluted, diseased, world (In the name of greed) and I applaud those humans who are the counterbalance.
Humans who see what is wrong, and try to fix it.
Humans have been the cause of disease. Not animals. Nature was fine before we arrived.
I will continue to uphold the law and not feed the animals. I shudder for the future of human life.
The Earth /Deer/ Raccoons/ Elk will go on. (Hell, the opossum has been around since the dinosaurs.)
long after Human life has destroyed itself in it's greed and glory, and vanished forever.
If I created the Earth and came back to see the mess Humans had made of my beautiful creation and how they murder my children for sport, there would be hell to pay.
Dale Leavitt
Dale Leavitt
Mar 12, 2016 09:56 PM
Well, John, that was quite a release. Good for you....and you are quite correct. As the human population bubble continues to expand all other living things on earth get displaced.
John Cowperthwaite
John Cowperthwaite
Mar 14, 2016 02:46 AM
HALF the world's wild animals have disappeared in 40 years: Humankind held responsible for plummet in figures as report reveals the US needs 3.9 planets to sustain current lifestyle.
This is where we are headed.

John Cowperthwaite
John Cowperthwaite
Mar 14, 2016 02:49 AM
Mankind's need for land and resources, combined with hunting and poaching, are causing our wild animals to die out
Wildlife populations around the globe have declined by 52 per cent on average since 1970, a new report has found
The likes of forest elephants, African lions and tigers are under threat, as well as American sharks
Lion numbers dropped 90% in 40 years, tigers by 97% in 100 years and elephants 60% since 2002, WWF reported

Read more: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article
John Cowperthwaite
John Cowperthwaite
Mar 14, 2016 02:52 AM
Mankind's need for land and resources, combined with hunting and poaching, are causing our wild animals to die out
Wildlife populations around the globe have declined by 52 per cent on average since 1970, a new report has found
The likes of forest elephants, African lions and tigers are under threat, as well as American sharks
Lion numbers dropped 90% in 40 years, tigers by 97% in 100 years and elephants 60% since 2002, WWF reported.
Dale Leavitt
Dale Leavitt
Mar 14, 2016 04:07 AM
John: Yes, but remember that ALL of the world's wildlife has been exterminated more than a few times over the past few hundred million years without any help from humans. And humans are not as efficient at killing than nature is. Don't despair. I just held a fishing tournament in the Far Western Pacific. More fish were caught and released than in any of the past 14 years previous. Large tuna, reef fish and billfish. It was amazing. Life is not over for the world's wildlife yet.....but some no doubt will perish while others thrive. Until the cycle returns.
Lily Darcey
Lily Darcey
Nov 29, 2016 10:14 PM
Jaime O'Neill Your article was well written and beautiful. You took the words right out of my mouth with regards to taking care of the deer. I live in the Pacific Northwest, and it is not illegal in the state where I live to feed the deer. Many people here do it in the winter, when the weather is harsh, in the hope of preventing deer from dying of starvation. Once the snow melts and the ground breaks through, people normally stop feeding them. I have never once had the little herds of deer which come to visit, not want to leave, Once winter is over, they migrate up to the higher elevations. I feed them the same thing you do, including some hay, cut up apples and shelled raw peanuts. They love dining at Chez Lily's, but they never demand or become aggressive, I feel privileged to have them visit, and I never get tired of watching them interact with each other. The deer eat and leave, and some are one time patrons of my restaurant. They use my yard, never my neighbors, as a sanctuary to sleep and hide from the increasing trouble we are having with poachers. I have even planted bushes in my yard where the deer can hide from the poachers and prying eyes. I have no problem with hunting, provided it is done legally. If I happen to see and injured or sick deer, which is not the norm to the healthy ones, I call the US Fish and Wildlife Serve. There have been occasions where poachers were bow hunting illegally, which left a buck running around the neighborhood with an arrow lodged in its stomach. I called the Fish and Wildlife Service were able to catch him and save his life. I am going to keep a copy of your beautiful article. Clearly, you are a good steward of God's creatures, as God expects us to take care of them when they are in need. I wish I could send you pictures of the herd of mule deer that visit. They are gorgeous and just amazing animals.