There is a beautiful and romanticized image of the doe: she is graceful, elegant, and delicate. She is shy and unattainable, disappearing softly at the slightest sound. Her eyes are a cliche for the vulnerable, docile feminine, and a glimpse of her, staring back at you for a profound moment before she flies, is precious and moving.
I am not this doe.
In a way, I hate this doe, because no doe is really this doe. This doe is all loveliness, and when we think of her as real, we are ignoring that deer are animals with all the smelly, uncomfortable, awkward, violent, and inescapable truths of being a living animal.
When I ignore those truths I feel like a liar. I have never found it good, in myself, to pretend that what is pleasurable is not also without grace or dignity, or that what is often visceral or disgusting is not also beautiful or pleasurable. To pretend that all is sweet and beautiful is to halve my joys and bury truths, whether it is about humans or deer.
Does are not all gentleness or vulnerability. They are fussily aggressive and can easily be called cruel by human standards. In the hungry depth of winter, a healthy doe, a survivor able to stand her ground against others of her kind, will certainly do so. She will actively prevent other does and fawns from food, even if she has had her fill. She will fend a starving family away from food she has claimed, and wait until they have left before walking away from the excess.
Nor do deer always flee in the face of danger - several accounts chronicle deer attacking dogs and humans when threatened, in some cases quite brutally. Not many animals hold up closely to their romanticized stereotypes when their survival is put into question, but the desperate deer can be the exact opposite of its gentle popular image. Its slim, delicate hoofs become formidable and unexpected weapons that bruise, lacerate, and break bones. There is no obviously toothy snarl – with no top teeth, an open mouth is not incredibly threatening – there is less expression in the face than in thin legs flailing and aimed to hurt.
In these, I know my distrust and the unexpectedness of it when I express anger. I know the stamp and the annoyance of simply remaining unwelcoming until someone I dislike just goes away. I know the attack that is dormant until one of my own, rather than me, is threatened. I know the unpleasantness of social distrust and dislike that is present in most creatures, but I know it in the often-quiet, near-expressionlessness of deer.
The deer is no peaceful vegetarian. We now know that deer do kill, sometimes to eat, and that they will scavenge corpses – in winter, yes, but also in the rich-grassed summer. The beached fish, the young grounded bird, the dead rabbit or pile of refuse have all found their way into the deer’s ruminant stomach.
I have never linked my diet and the deer’s – there are few things that are as wonderfully, pleasantly human to me as the way we prepare food. And yet we are both omnivores, and I take some pleasure in knowing that there is no “only this” or “none of that” even in the deer’s diet.
Deer are not always shy or skittish, nor does shyness equate to solitude. There is coalition between the whitetail and the turkey; there is play with rabbits or raccoons; there is tolerance of the lone coyote or the harmless pet dog. There is not even always shyness of humans – as many longsuffering suburban or rural gardeners can attest to. The safe deer can be a bold one or a friendly one, and deer have been known to take social interest in many other species including geese, rabbits, and cats, among others.
The deer that is bold in safety is the deer that I am. Skittish and untrusting until someone has proven themselves to be no threat, I have utter openness with those closest to me – I can do exactly as I like, most of the time, and fear nothing. And as the deer, I like to keep those I feel safe amongst close to me.
Deer are not all grace and preciousness. They are cervids, and cervids are very olfactory animals. As deer, to communicate is to smell; as nonhuman mammal, a primary tool in this communication is urine. To advertise one’s presence is to wallow in one’s own fluids or to mark one’s hoofs with urine. Courting, and therefore mating and surviving, is dependent on what we might think of as a disgusting fact. And yet we would not have deer without it.
As a human, it puzzles me to be leery of sex fluids. Barring concerns related to pregnancy or diseases, it is an alien concept to that some may enjoy sex but be discomfited by the thing that gives the activity its smell, its texture. Thankfully, I do not need to use urine to communicate my interest in my partner, but to rid myself of the smells of sex is a sad thing. It may be a human impulse, but knowing that the deer does what it can to strengthen its smell during the rut allows me to accept my own tendency to wallow in the smell of the body.
It is rare that in the realm of animals we see a mating that we can call romantic or dignified. Deer are no exception whatsoever. And in the indignity of the mating animal, I can remember that the cultural image of human sex as a flawless, seamlessly, gracefully passionate event is only a construct by omission. The undignified vocalization, the silly sound or awkward movement, is no less wonderful than the more idealized aspects of the experience: I know this in the grunt and bellow and low-thrust neck of the deer.
The grace of the doe, the elegance, is not what makes me deer. The romantic stereotype exists, certainly: A deer does flee, and I do usually feel more inclined to flight than to stand ground. The deer can be elegant, and there are times when I feel lightness of foot and ease of movement in a tall, heavy-boned but lithe body. The deer is vulnerable, and I feel vulnerable in the way that I recognize deer are very, very easy to kill – living in a rural place with a deer population larger than the human one, I saw a great deal of dead deer, and the mortality of the whitetail was impossible to ignore in a hunting community that also supports a healthy population of eastern coyotes.
And yet I do not feel graceful. Usually I feel colossally awkward, and something about deer speaks of that awkwardness to me. Being spooked about nothing, the awkward indignation of being disturbed, the skittering flight, the leggy leaps and funny-mouthed chewing – these are all deer. Some of these things are aspects of the romantic stereotype, but I do not perceive them in a romantic way. I do not think being deer makes me beautiful, desirable, or delicate.
To believe that being deer is a naked positive, without its stupid, its gross, its unpleasant-to-think-of, is to lie. Yes, there are things about deer that I think are lovely and ideal and that I relate to, often very much. I love the flick of the ears, the clarity of the gaze, the small cloven hoof poised not quite touching the ground, the flag of the tail, the sudden and fleeting bounding away. These are things that I can feel. But I can also feel the awkward stretch of the neck for browse, the indignation of being encroached upon, the need to hide, to flee, to fear. I can feel the undignified sound of the grunt and wheeze, the frozen discomfort of surprise and being caught in the headlights of night blindness, the flailing hoofs, and the hurried skitter away.
I can't deny the beauty and seriousness of feeling deer, or of following a deer path through the woods. I can't ignore the rough comfort of bark and the darkness of the woods’ smell, the depth of moss and flat beds in tall grass. But I also can't ignore that deer paths are liberally punctuated with droppings, that fur and gristle sticks to the front bumper for too long, that the deer’s bawl and bellow are ridiculous on the ears, or the way a buck’s carcass hangs without ceremony in November. The subtlety and quiet of the deer path, yet unavoidably littered with small piles of scat, for me, is an adequate metaphor for my experience of being doe: I can acknowledge the beautiful and wonderful, but must take into account the awkward and uncomfortable as well. I would not be deer if I could not accept both the loveliness and the unpleasantness of the doe.