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White-tailed

By Elise Greeley, Point Park News Service

Photo by Susanne Nilsson, Creative Commons.

“It’s not what you look at that matters, it’s what you see.”
—Henry David Thoreau

She skips out of her house on a November night. It’s an unseasonably warm one; she wears winter boots but no coat as she goes to the garage to find her father. On the other side of a heavy metal door she sees two things: first, her father with a wrench in his hand, fixing a lawnmower. Second, a deer strung up by its hind legs, hanging from the ceiling with a long, thick laceration down its white furry abdomen, beyond which she can see deep red colored flesh. She shrieks; the high-pitched wail echoes through the spacious garage. After averting her eyes from the gory
scene and back to her father, she quietly tells him dinner is ready.


The first day of buck hunting season is a day off from school. Technically it’s not a holiday, but every year it coincides with a teacher in-service day. Every year since kindergarten. There’s no way this is an accident. When you return from the long weekend, your teachers will ask, “did anyone get anything?”

A girl no older than four encounters a deer in the woods on a walk with her father. Warm evening sunlight of late autumn streams through the trees. The deer stands in a clearing, its black hooves on a bed of burnt amber pine needles, head turned away from the humans. The father tells the girl that he and she can get closer, and holds out his hand to reveal corn for the animal to eat. Sure enough, they approach the deer and it turns its head toward them as if to say hello. The girl realizes how tall the deer is at the same time the father picks her up. Suddenly, she’s closer to the animal, close enough to look into its eyes. The deer’s black eyes have a peculiar depth, mysterious like the night sky. The father reaches out with one hand, still holding onto his daughter with the other. “You can pet him,” he says, fingertips grazing the deer’s neck. “He’s friendly.” And so the girl pets the deer, her little-uncoordinated hand brushing the fur just above the animal’s moist nose.

Like any hobby, deer hunting has jargon. A “rub” happens when a section of tree bark is worn away from deer rubbing their antlers against it. The deer’s antlers collectively are the “rack” or “spread.” A beautiful, quality deer is a “dandy.” And, if you’re not a good hunter, you’ll likely “spook” the deer away more than attract them.

It takes her awhile to realize what “point” means. Peers at school will say they shot a 12 point; her grandfather got an 8 point, her father a 10 point. The more points, the better. Is it a weight class? A rating scale from 1 to 10? When she finds out “point” refers to a deer antler, she doesn’t get what the big deal is. Why does something like that matter, especially when it’s dead?

Male deer have antlers, not horns. Female deer, called doe, don’t have antlers. (But, some female deer with high testosterone have been found to develop antlers.) Young buck antlers are covered with a soft white velvet sheen that sheds as they age. (But, despite popular belief, antlers are not the best indicator of a deer’s age.) Every winter, deer shed their antlers. They fall off, not all at once, but in varying bits and pieces. A gory separation. Don’t be worried if you see deer walking around looking like extras from a zombie film. Remember: antlers. Not horns.

“Do I have to?” she asks her sixth-grade science teacher. She’s sitting alone, surrounded by empty school desks. “If you want a good grade,” her teacher replies, voice flat and unforgiving. The girl has no choice but to force herself up and walk to the back of the classroom, legs and hands trembling. On a table are the deer hearts in metal trays waiting for dissection. The other kids stand in a semicircle behind the table laughing, off-white latex gloves on their hands, alternating between poking each other and poking the bloody, slimy organ. The girl gasps and turns back around. Her arms crossed, her throat tightening, she wonders why no one else seems to mind the violence.

$2,484: the average amount individual American deer hunters spent on clothing, equipment, and licenses in 2011. Overall, hunting is a huge industry, with $38.3 billion dollars spent in the year 2015. You can find all the top brands at a sporting goods store nearest you. You’ll see rows upon rows of, but not limited to: treestands, bows, and arrows. Deer calls, scent maskers, and knives. Gun cleaning accessories. Even hunting rifles themselves.

Venison stroganoff is a family recipe, the exact same as beef stroganoff except the beef is replaced with deer meat from the Mason canning jars in the pantry next to the stove. A girl, now thirteen and contemplating the concept of vegetarianism, regards her dinner with uncertainty. Her mother, reconciling with her as if this is a business proposition, reminds her deer is a lean meat. “Deer are herbivores. They eat plants; you know where this meat came from. Not like that hormone-filled beef from the store.” Meanwhile, the girl’s mind is flooded with pastoral images of deer nibbling on berries.

The White-tailed deer is the official animal of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. It’s also an animal listed “Least Concern” on the Encyclopedia of Life endangered species index. Deer are everywhere, especially here. On rural Pennsylvania, roads are yellow diamond-shaped signs affixed with black silhouettes of deer jumping. No words, just a reminder: they’re everywhere.
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A doe and three fawns aren’t startled by the headlights of her first car, a beat-up maroon 2000 Pontiac Grand Prix. They take their time crossing the backroad, unfettered by the sudden human presence on a summer night. Her car idle, she’s reminded of humid July nights a decade ago when deer spotting was a family affair. Everyone in the blue pickup truck after the sun’s gone down, no seatbelts, her father with one hand on the steering wheel and one shining a bright-white flashlight beam out the window. Cruising down a dirt road with the breeze blowing back her hair; “ooohs” and “aaahs” every time a deer is spotted. The hick version of a nature walk. Now, the deer in her sight line stray from the headlight beam and stride off into the shadowy forest.

This isn’t some mass free-for-all. Hunting is heavily regulated. In Pennsylvania, you have to be 12-years old to hunt. The Game Commission must know what type of gun or bow you’re using (archery and rifle are different seasons, so plan ahead) and whether you’re hunting on private or public land. If you want to hunt doe or antlerless deer, there are completely separate permits for that. Different parts of the state have different bag limits — limitations on how many deer you can kill per season. Wildlife scientists put serious research into these rules and regulations. Regardless, you will undoubtedly hear men at the bank, the post office or the gas station with bald spots dressed in full camo complain about them every year.

Another car meets deer memory: the screech of brake pads and a dense thud like she’s never heard startling her awake. Adrenaline pumps; she can hear her heartbeat in her ears. The first thing she sees out the windshield is dim headlights, the grey road with a yellow center line, and a huge buck with a white tail and a mangled, bloody leg limping away off into the woods. Her father swears and gets out of the truck but soon returns to the single seat cab. The next morning, she’d learn hitting the deer destroyed the front bumper of that Dodge pickup, and that sometimes creatures bring harm to themselves.

Women hunt. And it isn’t a big deal. In fact, if you’re a woman who doesn’t hunt, you’re in the minority. You’ll be asked time and time again if you want to venture out at the crack of dawn in the bitter cold and sit in a tree stand twenty feet off the ground for hours. You can say no. You’ll be asked if you could pull the trigger when you see a deer in the crosshairs of your rifle scope. You can say no. You may be ridiculed; you may feel like you’re the only one at times. But you can say no.

Many years later, another one catches her attention. Along the side of the road is a long abandoned, bloated corpse with flies buzzing around its white fuzzy ears and cloudy, coal black eyes. It’s easy to imagine the deer alive. She could see it: the deer in the forest, twelve sprawling bone-like antlers on its head, its long legs amid the tall grass. Like a photograph straight out of National Geographic. When she tells her father about it, he’s saddened. “What a shame,” he says. “It would look nice on the wall there.”

Elise Greeley is a junior English literature major at Point Park University.

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