Not “Just” a Deer

There have been times in the last few years when I’ve wondered if I have it in me to care anymore, or if the stress of the pandemic, politics, family drama, and grief has pushed me off an emotional cliff. I can still cry, sometimes too easily, but it’s often tears of despair, not compassion.

Then, last weekend, I was playing fetch with Zuzu when a raccoon stumbled out of the woods, literally walking like it was drunk. It was rabid, and I felt genuine compassion for its suffering.

May the memory of its last moments serve to remind me of the person I can be.

The following is something I wrote eleven years ago, and in light of the raccoon incident, it seems a good time to share it again.

June 2011. I woke up at 4 a.m., sweaty with a slight fever from a suspected UTI that had been percolating for twelve hours. You can wonder if you’re pregnant, be unsure if you have strep throat, lost as to why your lower back is bugging you, but if you have a UTI, you know it beyond the shadow of a doubt.

Urgent care didn’t open until 9:30, so I slept a few more hours and dreamed I yelled at a church congregation because they didn’t know the third verse of the hymn “Holy, Holy, Holy.” (What is it about weird dreams in the early morning?)

I got up, dressed, had some breakfast, then started my drive to Walgreens. It was a beautiful morning, and I was thinking of the latte I’d get at Panera, singing One Republic’s “Good Life” when a deer ran out in front of the Mercury Mariner ahead of me. The driver slammed on her brakes, but the deer clipped the front left bumper and was thrown onto the shoulder on the opposite side. The driver pulled over, I pulled in behind her, and we got out of our vehicles.

“Are you OK?” I asked.

“Yes, yes,” said the driver. “I…I…” She looked across the road. “Oh my god, it’s still alive!”

The little buck was breathing hard, and the left side of his head was bloodied. He tried to get up, but his legs were broken.

The woman called 9-1-1 while her husband walked up the hill to see what he could do about traffic. The deer struggled and struggled while the driver and I stood by our vehicles, horrified by his pain and desperation. The deer didn’t understand what had happened. All he wanted to do was to get the hell out of there, get back to his life. But as hard as he tried to stand up, he was dying, and there wasn’t a damn thing we could do.

Most people drove by, oblivious to the dying deer, but a man and his companion pulled over and kept the deer on the shoulder, petting him and holding him in place.

To distract the driver, I asked her where she’d been heading.

“I was going to the bakery to pick up my birthday cake,” she said. “Happy birthday to me, right?” She started crying.

The deer died just as the police arrived. The officer told the driver that since her car was drivable, she shouldn’t have called 9-1-1 since a deer collision was a non-reportable accident.

“But he was still alive!” she cried. “If nothing else, he had to be put out of his misery!”

“Ma’am, it’s just a deer. And did you see that guy petting it?” He rolled his eyes. “Kinda weird.”

That “just a deer” was afraid and in a lot of pain, and someone tried to offer him comfort as he died. There was everything right about that act of compassion. It’s only because the officer had a gun and could arrest me that I didn’t say what I was thinking, that in the midst of anyone’s or anything’s suffering, may I never be like him, someone who thinks, “It was just a deer.”

3 thoughts on “Not “Just” a Deer

  1. I can so relate to the deer story. I have never hit anything larger than a squirrel, but when it happens, it haunts me for days. I’m sure that police officer had to harden himself to be able to witness some of the things he saw in the line of duty, but one would hope there would be just a bit of compassion still in there for a dying creature, no matter the circumstances or how many legs it has. But I’m also curious, what do you do when you see a rabid raccoon? Fish and Wildlife department call? Scary!

  2. This is so poignant. I recently read a memoir called “Fox & I” by Catherine Raven. One of the themes in the book centered around the idea of the human-wild animal connection. Is it something deep that can be felt both ways? (I believe it is.) There are examples of wild animals extending a compassion and even at times saving humans. I’m glad you were all there with the deer and it didn’t die alone. Beautiful essay.

    1. Thanks, Vickie. I’m also going to look for that memoir. I think too often we humans view animals, especially those farmed for food, as nothing more than a commodity and disregard their fears and comfort.

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