In the part of New York state where Riverhouse is located, it is against the law to feed the deer. Some people do, of course, but most observe the law, knowing that the deer population is growing beyond the limits of sustainability. Being - usually – law-abiding folk, we lived with our deer population for many years without tampering or interfering or feeding. We are not hunters. I have no doubt that, were I faced with starvation for myself or my loved ones, I would readily pick up a rifle and learn to kill my dinner. Thanks be to God, I have never been faced with that necessity. For someone who has trouble killing a spider, the thought of killing a deer is well-nigh unimaginable.
We can sit in our combined little living-dining room at Riverhouse and watch the hill behind us come alive in the evenings. While our best efforts to attract bats has not yet borne fruit, despite a very homey little bat house, we do enjoy many other kinds of wildlife. Occasionally our mama bear lumbers by, but she generally prefers to wait until we’re not around. Attacking our composter is much safer then, and she can eat freely of the waste that we hope may one day enrich our poor soil. We hear, but rarely see, the beating wings of the ruffed grouse as they beat out their rhythmic engine sounds in the underbrush. Now and then large flocks of wild turkeys cross the crest of the hill, and wander down past the house on their way to the river. They always look like a troop of somewhat inebriated comedians, weaving and wobbling as they run across each other’s paths. Deer, of course, are always present, sometimes alone, but usually in groups of five or six females with their young close by. In the winter we can see the prints they leave in the snow as they search for food.
One winter evening as I sat reading, the motion-sensor light at the back of the house came on. I looked up to see a doe standing with her two fawns, one on either side. All three were looking intently through our large French doors into our house – not moving at all, but only watching, and closer to the house than I’d ever seen a deer. I watched back for a few minutes, then returned to my book. When I looked again later, they were gone. The next night, however, they were back, and the night after. Each time they stood in the same place on the snowy hill, simply watching. I suggested to my husband that perhaps the doe had been fed by former residents, and had brought her little ones with her to seek a meal.
The snow was deep that year, and fell with a monotonous continuity; I knew the deer would be struggling to find food. And I knew I should not feed them. And finally I knew I was going to do just that. We fed the birds at a feeder located on the opposite side of the house, just outside our large plate-glass window, and one evening after the deer had visited for several nights, I heard a bumping against the house beneath the large window. Cautiously I moved to the glass and looked down. A small brown head lifted, and two of the largest brown eyes I’d ever seen looked back up at me. The fawn’s eyelashes seemed yards long, and the small creature simply looked for a moment, then returned to eating the bird seed that had fallen on the ground. Not far away, at the corner of the house, was its sister (brother?) – a little more timid and perhaps not yet hungry enough to dare such proximity to humans. The next morning I went into town and bought a bag of feed. For the next couple of weeks we sprinkled seed out on the hill, and when we left we poured out the remainder nearer the house in a long line of sustenance.
That winter was long, and I know the feed didn’t last through to spring. And I struggle with my conscience. Feeding those lovely animals made me feel better, at least for a time. But we could not stay to see the winter through, and is it really a good thing to take responsibility when you cannot take it in full? Did we help them – or did we only make ourselves more comfortable? I suspect the latter – but I will never forget the enormous brown eyes and the hunger that drove the deer to our house, and I don’t really know what I will do if the deer come again. Choices – moral and otherwise – are rarely simple cases of right and wrong.