Dennis deer wreck

Here’s what happens when a Honda Element encounters a hormone-maddened whitetail buck. There’s even deer hair between the wheel and the tire.

It has begun.

The car is in the driveway, and the wrecker is on its way. Again.

I can’t drive it because of a deer. Again.

At least this time I didn’t actually hit the deer. (I hope it later fell over dead from fright, and its brothers and sisters and cousins, too.)

Here’s what happened: I was coming home from a trip to town, where I stopped by the new newspaper office – I liked the old one better – and went to the grocery store, so I had groceries in bags all over the place.

About a mile from the house, a dimwitted doe – but I repeat myself – dashed out in front of the car at the very last moment. I stomped on the brakes and missed the deer by inches. And apparently blew a brake line or fitting or something; that remains to be seen. I’m sure it will be the most expensive part of the brake system, because that’s how these situations seem always to resolve.

The effect was that I went from having brakes so effective that they possibly saved my life (and, sadly, the life of the deer) to having no brakes at all. Also, I had to retrieve groceries from places in the car I did not think a grocery could hide.

Like many of their fellow food-chain links, at their best deer are not especially intelligent creatures. But over time, nature did, as nature does, allow the ones smart enough to remain alive do so, while the stupidest among them were culled by predators. Then we came along and we, as we do, eliminated most of the predators.

We eliminated most of the deer, too, but then we encouraged the deer population to grow, without replacing the predators. Now the deer’s chief predator around here is the automobile. And while wolves, coyotes and bobcats don’t typically get hurt in their encounters with deer, that’s not true of automobiles, trucks and motorcycles. The results are sometimes tragic for humans.

Even nature knows that the deer population has gotten too big, and has done something about it, nature being self-balancing. Two diseases, one called chronic wasting disease (the always-fatal deer version of “mad cow” disease) and the other colorfully named epizootic hemorrhagic disease (usually but not always fatal) have thinned the deer herd in some places – a little, but not enough in my estimation.

At any time of year you’re likely to see deer, by themselves or in groups, standing dumbly in the middle of the road. You’ll see these hood-ornament wannabes dead on the side of the road, or even in the road. But each year, long about now, it gets worse. They go berserk.

It’s rutting season – “the rut,” as it’s called – when deer become truly dangerous.

They lose their already limited minds in a life-threatening – our lives, and theirs – frenzy to mate.

The bucks, largish creatures with an array of strong pointy things put there for fighting on their heads, are after does and are none too careful in discriminating the difference between a doe and something else. They are eager to do battle with any challenger (or Charger, or Camaro). They pay no attention to anything but sex. The does, seeking to mate only with the strongest and fittest bucks, run away.

Biologists have never documented a statute in nature’s law that awards extra points to deer who do all this as close as possible to a speeding automobile, but observation suggests that such a rule exists.

My first autumn here I had an unhappy encounter with a hormone-powered buck on U.S. Rt. 33 headed toward Athens one Sunday night. It would have been worse had I not already braked for the herd of does that had crossed the highway. I was preparing to resume normal speed when a buck, following the does, crossed the road and slammed into the left front of my car. It is one of those things you remember frame-by-frame. I hit the brakes again, which let the leaping stag come back down – otherwise, he probably would have come through the windshield and this space would have been filled these 13 years by someone else.

It did close to $5,000 damage to the car. When I took it in for an estimate the next morning, Nov. 14, 2005, I was told I was the 21st person to appear at that particular shop that particular morning in a car damaged by a collision with a deer. And it was only 11 a.m. (It would turn out that of the half dozen people with whom I worked, four had run into deer that weekend; one had her new car totaled.)

Since then, even in non-rutting season I’ve often had to brake for deer eight or nine times in a single 20-mile trip between Athens and my house.

It’s been my hope that by now nature would have completed the task of favoring deer who stay deep in the woods and that the ones which wander onto roads, streets, and highways would now be a rarity. But this has not happened. Then again, it used to take skill to be a successful deer hunter, while now one could bring home venison with no more hunting trip and equipment than a stroll in the back yard with a golf club.

What’s to be done? I honestly don’t know. The reintroduction of predators wouldn’t do the trick; we know that from other places where the newly restored predators discovered that dogs and cats and poultry and livestock are easy meals. Hunting is of some use, but it’s really only effective if the hunters harvest mature females – whitetail does don’t usually reproduce their first year.

Perhaps the diseases will ultimately do the trick. Sad to say, I kind of hope they do.

In the meantime, be extra-careful when you’re driving, especially at night. It’s the woods out there.

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