Lame Deer - Montana Wildlives

A young doe has been visiting my yard for the past couple of years. Lots of deer visit my yard and I have the sparse vegetable garden to prove it, but this doe was different. She had a malady that rendered one of her back legs completely useless and the other only slightly better. Maybe she had been hit by a car, maybe she had gotten her leg caught in a fence, or maybe she was born this way. Her right rear leg rested inside and to the left of her left rear leg, the latter supporting her entire weight. With every step it seemed that her back would break from the downward pressure on her midsection as her back legs were dragged forward caused her spine to bow. It was like watching a fly with one wing spin in circles or an exhausted marathon runner crawl toward the finish line. Painful to watch, but more painful to endure.

She limped around the yard every few days during the summer, less often in winter, and would occasionally disappear for weeks or even months at a time. During her longer absences I wondered if I would see her again, or whether she had finally met her fate in the form of a dog or coyote she could not escape, a texting teenaged driver, or even just an irrigation ditch that was a bit deeper than expected. Even in a deer-friendly city like Missoula, fate can be postponed but never cheated. There were too many dogs, too many cars, and too many fences for a deer like this to survive for long. I worried that some well-intentioned neighbor would call Deer Protective Services to report this feeble creature because I knew her fate would be that of a horse. If we are willing to kill a bought-and-paid-for horse simply because of a bad leg, surely this scruffy ragamuffin would fare no better. Perhaps out of pity we would judge this animal’s life to be too painful, too pathetic to be allowed to continue. We’d be doing her a favor, we’d tell ourselves, who would want to live this way?

But she had an appetite like no other deer, stripping my maple branches, tomato plants, ferns, and raspberries like a mechanized logging machine. Whenever she would return, I would watch for signs of improvement or deterioration, usually finding neither. She sometimes arrived in a group of other does, her larger, stronger, healthier sisters and cousins. But she was often alone, unable to follow the healthier deer as they leapt over tall fences to negotiate their way from one yard to the next in search of the greenest leaves, the ripest tomatoes, or the safest places to rest. Deer are true nomads, always moving and carrying with them everything of value such as their tough hides, their large eyes and larger ears, their children, and their friends.

A couple of weeks ago my lame doe arrived alone and spent the night under one of the pine trees in my yard. She seemed skinnier than usual this time, and she had not shed her mottled winter coat for the soft bronze garment of spring. She wobbled a bit more than usual even when standing still and tried but failed to stretch high enough to reach the young, green maple leaves. She did, however, manage to shear the tops from my tomato plants.

I saw her again this morning, or rather my dog did from the bedroom window. Usually my dog pays little attention to the deer (those in the yard anyway), but this time she growled and whined a bit from her comfortable perch on top of her memory-foam mattress between two pillows. I wondered if someone was in the yard, a meter reader or perhaps another dog. I went to the front door and as I opened it my dog pushed past my leg and streaked across the porch, into the yard, and around the corner of the house. Knowing that this meant she was after something, or someone, I immediately called her back and she obediently returned.

I looked into the yard and there was my old lame deer friend, looking at me as she often did, judging as if she’d never seen me before whether I was friend or foe, or perhaps just wondering if I would toss sliced apples to her as I sometimes did. She ate all the birdseed from both of my birdfeeders, and the first few ripe raspberries of the year. Just as I was going back into the house, I saw something twitch in the bushes behind her. A tiny, brown and white spotted fawn stepped boldly from the undergrowth.

She strutted straight up to her mother, slamming her head against her poor mother’s underbelly in an effort to gain permission to feed. The doe winced. I could not believe that this doe, disabled as she was, barely able to walk, unable to cross any fence that could not be stepped over, unable even to lead a normal deer life doing normal deer things surrounded and protected by her normal deer friends, had been able to overcome all the obstacles needed for a city deer to have a fawn. How had she managed to support the weight of a 300-pound buck while mating? How had her one almost-good back leg supported the extra weight of a child for months? How had she managed to find enough to eat through the cold Montana winter to grow a child inside her?

The doe was not interested in giving milk at the moment, and the fawn bounced away, leaping and dancing. “C’mon mom, let’s play,” the young fawn seemed to be saying, but the fawn would have to find another playmate. This doe had many strengths, but leaping and dancing were not among them. I went to the kitchen and sliced an apple. Returning to the yard, the doe did not even wait for me to toss the first slice before she began limping toward me, desperate for the carbohydrate-packed fruit. Her son or daughter stood behind her with a broad stance, strong and low as if braced against the wind. A healthy child. A miraculous one.

All earthlings, whether human, deer, or other, have strengths and weaknesses. Some of my weaknesses are physical, some mental, some emotional, some social. Some are mild while others are serious, some were imposed upon me while others are of my own making. Sometimes I consciously try to overcome my weaknesses and I might sometimes succeed, while other times I build walls around them to protect myself. But just like my doe friend, my greatest achievements come not from using my strengths, but by overcoming my weaknesses, by turning my crises into opportunities, by surprising everyone with what I can do, even myself.

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