Feeding the deer

by 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.

© High Country News