I Traded My Dog For A Herd Of Deer
Hindsight's 20/20--But It's Even Better With A Rifle-Mounted Scope
It all started with Rex. He is our 95-pound, black and tan Airedale/Rottweiler who had been pestering us to get him a playmate since the day we rescued him (at 6 months old and 60 pounds) from the dog pound five years ago. Rex loves people--especially children--but more than anything he loves other dogs. When we lived in the city and took him for walks he would go nuts whenever he saw another dog--even if it growled like mad at him and clearly wanted only to tear out his throat.
As he moped about the yard it was hard to ignore the signs: obviously his life would not be complete until another canine member joined the household. And so as he patiently rode with my husband in the moving truck across five states and away from everything that was familiar to him (I followed behind in the pickup with a camper full of cats on the back), we promised Rex that once we bought a place in the country he could get a puppy.
When we arrived in Missouri we quickly became regulars at the local animal shelter, stopping by every week or so to look over the available canine inventory in the hopes of spotting the perfect pooch. A week before moving to Windridge we found it--a small black and tan puppy that had been tossed into a plastic garbage bag with her four siblings and dumped in front of a vet's office. Her paperwork claimed that she was part Rottweiler. Rex would love her, and she would no doubt develop into a big, scary guard dog--just what we wanted. She crawled onto our laps and stared up at us with that pitiful look only a tiny orphan puppy is capable of giving. That did it.
We filled out the adoption papers and convinced the shelter people (with the help of a 50-pound sack of dog food) to board her for anotoher five days while we prepared to move. During that long week I playfully referred to our new little bundle of cuteness as Buttercup, though each time I said it my husband insisted that we were certainly not going to name her Buttercup, and as soon as we got to know her better a more dignified name would be chosen.
But when she greeted us that first morning on the farm at 4am with a high-pitched, relentless yap, my infuriated and groggy husband stumbled over to her makeshift pen in the laundry room and shouted, "BUTTERCUP! SHUT UP!" and that, in my opinion, settled that. Like it or not, we would one day have a 100-pound, bloodthirsty watchdog named Buttercup.
But B.C., as we came to call her, did not grow into anything even remotely resembling a Rottweiler. She got tall and lanky and then stopped growing at about 50 pounds. She was very sweet but absolutely uncontrollable. She did not merely run and jump like a normal puppy--she bounced everywhere. She bounced around the yard, she bounced up to the cats (scaring them half to death in the process), she bounced right over fences. She barked mightily at intruders and strange noises, but she didn't look the least bit viscious. In fact she was rather silly looking. We couldn't quite figure out what she was, except cute. It was not until an enormous buck crossed the road about 100 feet in front of us one day during a walk that we finally figured it out. She bounced off after him at lightning speed, her paws only touching the ground every few yards, an instinctual, howling yelp escaping from somewhere deep inside her. B.C. was a hunting dog.
Unfortunately her excessive energy and love of the chase did not mesh well with a flock of sheep. She would bounce right at them, sending them into a panic-stricken flight which she took to be the beginning of a game. She meant no harm, but sheep are very nervous, very defenseless animals who can easily be run to death--and she was big enough to hurt one if she did happen to catch up to it. Confining her was impossible, and she spent hours each day roaming the fields behind the house, nose to the ground, intently following invisible trails. Chaining up a dog out in the country seemed not only absurd but also cruel. We loved B.C., but she was causing too much trouble. Her negative attributes outweighed her positive ones (which, my husband was so fond of pointing out, were so far nonexistent). She had to go.
It was only after she had become the new companion of an ecstatic 11-year-old boy did we realize just how valuable B.C. had been to us. In fact, the signs began to appear the very next day after her departure.
"Come quick!" my husband yelled from the window. "There's a huge buck by the orchard!"
We stood in awe and watched as he casually strolled through the persimmon grove adjacent to our fenced orchard. What a rare treat to have such a magnificent creature grace us with his presence--especially so close to the house. I opened the door and stepped outside to get a closer look at him. Unconcerned by my presence, he continued to slowly make his way through the trees, pausing now and then to lower his head to the ground for a nibble.
"Of course," I said. "He must be eating the fallen persimmons. How sweet." Eventually he wandered off towards the woods, and we went back to whatever we had been doing.
Looking back, it is difficult for me to believe that I could have actually been so stupid. But only when one is looking back is one able to say such things. At the time I had no idea of what was to come.
The days passed, and the buck did not return to the yard or to our thoughts. I was too busy in the garden to have noticed him anyway--the harvest and planting of late summer had all of my attention. There were pounds and pounds of ruby red paste tomatoes still begging to be picked and simmered (along with freshly harvested garlic, onions, sweet basil, Greek oregano, and Italian flat leaf parsley) into jars of sauce that would be so cherished during the winter months. There were thick bunches of cilantro next to jalapeno pepper and cherry tomato plants weighted down with ripe bounty--an open invitation for fresh salsa if there ever was one. There were six types of beans that needed to be hung up and dried, along with radish plants that had flowered and gone to seed. There were perfect rows of tiny heads of buttercrunch lettuce in my new shaded lettuce patch, plus escarole, endive, and arugula, that cried out to be tossed with nothing more than a few yellow pear tomatoes, a handful of fresh herbs, and a simple vinaigrette. And there were the fall crops that had been started weeks before in the greenhouse and now awaited transplant: kale, Swiss chard, collards, Brussels sprouts, Chinese cabbage, bok choy.
I spent hours each day in the garden--picking, planting, pruning, and even planning next year's plots (these plans begin immediately following the first crisis or disappointment of the season, such as when the pumpkins are destroyed by an invasion of squash bugs or all of the bush beans are burned to a crisp by a much-too-strong spraying of copper sulfate). I was acutely aware of everything that was going on in my carefully tended patch of ground--so of course I noticed the bite marks.
I didn't think much of them, though, as they were nothing more than a few munched lettuce leaves. I blamed them on the rabbit I had once seen scampering out from beneath the broccoli plants--until I returned to the garden the next day and took a careful look at my rows of tender buttercrunch. They no longer looked so tender. That was because every single head of lettuce had the center neatly nibbled out of it. All sixty plants! I was horrified. The last precious salads of the season had been eaten by somebody else--and a gourmet at that. I fell to my knees and tried to keep from crying.
That was when I saw the hoofprints. There they were, thoroughly preserved in the soft, organic soil--clear proof and identification of the feasting intruders. The sheep! They had somehow gotten through the fence and into my garden! One of them even left a tidy little pile of pellets right there in the dirt--more evidence. I immediately marched into the barnyard and checked the sheep for guilty looks, but their woolly faces revealed nothing, and of course my inquiries went unanswered.
Determined to catch them red-handed (hooved?) in the garden--and thereby discover their mode of entry as they attempted to flee--I camped out at the bathroom window, which overlooks the garden, armed with an enormous flashlight. As soon as it was dark I flicked it on and pointed its blinding beam into the black. I couldn't believe it. There was Rolling Thunder, our sheep-guarding llama, standing in the middle of the garden and staring straight at me! I could easily make out his long woolly neck in the dim light. And those cute, pointy ears--they were impossible to miss. Those definitely weren't his hoofprints I'd seen, though; he was obviously leading a group of sheep into the garden for a nightly tidbit. And he just sood there. What nerve!
I flew out the door and around the house into the garden, brandishing my giant flashlight all the way. But Thunder, who can run as fast as a horse if he so desires, had completely disappeared. I waved my flashlight all around but illuminated nothing except a completely closed gate and a couple of very confused cats. I then stomped into the barnyard and found Thunder standing calmly as if nothing had happened. He wasn't even breathing hard.
Back in the house I contemplated more extreme action. Climbing up into one of the trees next to the shaded lettuce patch perhaps? Out of curiosity I returned to my post at the bathroom window and flicked on my trusty torch. Unbelievable! Thunder was back in the exact same spot, staring me down with that pompous look of his. I ran out into the garden again, this time intent on seeing how he was getting in and out. I walked slowly over to where I had spotted him from the bathroom and Aha! Oops. Well, it didn't look like a 6-foot metal fencepost draped with a big brown blanket--it looked like a llama. Those ears--I know I saw those ears.
So there I was, absolutely humiliated and still facing the mystery of how the sheep were getting to my lettuce. And the next day things got even worse: the nocturnal nibblers had returned and polished off all the outer leaves of the lettuce, leaving me with nothing but a few stubs--and several more hoofprints.
That night I prepared for another stakeout at the bathroom window, and when darkness fell, click! There they were! Eyes! Four beady little eyes caught in the glow of my flashlight. I knew it! Gotcha you little woolly brats with your big--antlers? Deer? Deer! Of course--their hoofprints look just like the sheeps'. Where in the world was Rex? Some watchdog.
I screamed vicious threats at them through the open window (the flashlight reflected off the glass when it was closed; it was nippy but worth it). They immediately turned and ran toward the back garden fence--and then sailed right over it. I slammed the window shut, grabbed my flashlight, and tore out to the garden to make sure they were really gone. Rex trotted over to me (still sluggish with sleep) just as I caught sight of some eyes in the field behind the garden. I raced toward them, urging Rex to follow and attack, but he was so excited that we were out playing together in the middle of the night that he was completely oblivious to everything else. I yelled again and scared them off, but I knew they would be back. This was war.
The next few months were trying ones indeed. Battle tactics on both sides escalated as the days went by. I was determined to get rid of the deer, and they were determined to eat every speck of green I had planted. Each day they devoured something new from their organic garden buffet. They became less and less picky with every visit, munching only the tops of the Swiss chard and rapini one night, then returning to finish off the lower parts of the plants a few days later. They decimated the celeriac and gobbled up the kale the night before I planned to harvest it. They braved a hailstorm just to eat my cilantro.
But it was my shaded lettuce patch that remained their favorite spot for snacks. In planning this long, narrow plot, I had considered only the fact that it was shaded for most of each day by several tall trees, thereby allowing me to grow lettuce even during the hot summer months. I had not, however, taken into account that the tall trees happened to be persimmons, which meant that not only did the yellowing leaves and mushy fruits of late summer fall all over my lettuce, but I had also provided the damn deer with a fresh fruit and salad bar. For although I think that the six million or so tiny persimmons the trees produce each year taste exactly like soap, every other creature around here seems to think that they taste like ambrosia (remember that first magnificent buck?). Add that to the fact that the garden is strategically located directly between two other large persimmon groves, it is no wonder the deer zeroed in on my little organic piece of paradise. What had kept them at bay until now? We finally realized it had been B.C.
Once the deer had polished off the persimmons and run out of good things to eat in the garden, they didn't leave--they got angry. At night I covered what few plants remained with cotton sheets held down by rocks, and they responded by visiting during a heavy rain and fiercely stomping the sheets (along with the plants beneath them) into the mud. One morning I found woven wire tomato cages smashed and flattened and turnips pulled from the ground and tossed into the grass. They even ate six entire wormwood plants which are supposedly poisonous. I would have sworn that the neighbors were sneaking into the garden and playing a cruel joke on me--if only we had any neighbors.
Friends I told of my troubles refused to believe me and simply laughed. They obviously had no idea what I was dealing with. These were not your ordinary nervous little deer--these were six-foot-high eating machines who showed absolutely no fear. They ignored Rex's murderous barks because they knew he couldn't get into the garden (one large dog plus one large garden equals way too much damage). They briefly looked up from eating when my husband fired a shotgun at them from a few yards away. Whenever they did run off, it was only to the safety of the persimmon grove, where they waited until we were out of sight and then hopped right back into the garden.
Sometimes yelling at them worked, as I discovered one night when I ran straight at them in the dark, making every meat-eating animal noise I could think of--lion, tiger, dog, coyote, giant monkey. Back in the house I informed my husband that I had scared them off. He said of course I had--one probably said to the other, "Let's get out of here, Marvin. Now she's making bad animal noises." The second time I did it (I sounded a lot scarier) I decided they were running away because they probably figured I had rabies or something. I definitely sounded out of my mind--whatever I was supposed to be. But it kept them away for a day, and after that I took to walking outside and howling like a coyote without warning. It scared my husband half to death.
I spent more of each night at my freezing bathroom lookout than in bed. No matter what time it was, the enemy was always out there. One night I spied two huge bucks hanging out behind the orchard. I dashed outside and took Rex along with me. A few weeks earlier I had opened up the orchard to him in the hopes that he would patrol it at night, but unfortunately during the previous year I had drilled it into his brain a little too hard that he was not supposed to leave the yard at night. He refused to set foot in there. When I caught one in the beam of my flashlight I ordered Rex to sic 'em. But did my faithful 95-pound dog charge at the deer that was less than ten yards away? No. He didn't even see it--he was too busy eating persimmons. One of the cats ran past him after the deer. Oh, how I longed for B.C.
I am a peace-loving person at heart, and the constant warfare began getting to me. I was starting to lose it. When I peered out the bathroom window one morning and saw that enemy forces had taken one of the sheets covering some plants and twisted it up into an angry little ball, I didn't let out a groan--I let out a growl.
I couldn't concentrate on anything but the deer; it was impossible to escape from them. As I gathered up some muddy turnips they had ripped from the ground, I glanced up at the clear blue sky and saw a lone, fast-moving cloud directly overhead--shaped exactly like a prancing deer. And when I was working in the garden one afternoon and two huge deer walked nonchalantly up to the fence and hopped over it not 50 feet from me, I truly believed I was hallucinating. Too stunned to react, I stimply stood and watched them casually inspecting the plots, taking a bite here, a taste there. Though these deer can detect a faint whiff of parsley from half a mile away, my presence had obviously eluded them. I called out softly to them to see what they would do. Nothing. I called a little louder. No response. I ran toward them screaming at the top of my lungs, "DEER SEASON OPENS TOMORROW AND I'VE GOT A GUN!" That got rid of them (though they knew I was lying and returned the next day with two friends).
As I watched their retreating white tails bounding away I could feel myself going over the edge, but I no longer cared. They have driven me to the brink of this very deep ravine, I told myself, and if I go, they go, too. I will reach out with both hands and grab onto an antler before I begin to fall. I let out a fiendish cackle and started wondering how much a good deer rifle with a high-powered scope cost, and whether I should put night vision goggles at the top of my Christmas list.
Never a big fan of taxidermy, I now saw it in a whole new light. A smile crossed my lips as I imagined the entire herd mounted in the living room, little bits of buttercrunch hanging from their mouths. Yes, that was it, and I would name each of them after whatever they had been eating when I blew them away with my big new gun. Then I could look up at them and say, "A little more, Arugula?" and "Oregano, Endive, what about you?" I let out another cackle.
I would probably be lying in a padded cell somewhere right now, dressed in camouflage and howling like a coyote, if the first snowfall hadn't arrived and signaled a truce. I placed tarps securely over the few remaining turnips to help them survive the cold (and further attacks), and the deer, having polished off everything else edible, stopped coming around. But I know they will be back as soon as the first tender lettuce is ready to eat, and I have spent much of the winter preparing for our next encounter. When they tiptoe up to my garden fence, they will be surprised to find that it has grown from four feet high to ten, as I will soon be installing deer-proof mesh fencing along the entire perimeter of the garden and orchard.
And if that doesn't work, I have something else up my sleeve. No, it is not a mail order package of coyote urine, or the special deer-deterring electronic noise machine that my husband suggested we buy (until I politely pointed out to him that if the deer were not the least bit frightened by gunfire, then it was highly unlikely that they would flee from an annoying whistle sound), or even a shiny new deer rifle. My solution did not come from a store, and in fact it cost me nothing. It simply appeared in the yard one sunny morning after a week-long snowstorm--exhausted, half-frozen, and extremely glad to see me. I picked it up and was immediately given that pitiful look only a tiny orphan puppy is capable of giving.
Yes, my secret weapon is a Genuine Deer Chasing Dog, and I have named her Robin. She looks like a cross between a beagle and one of those little circus dogs that jumps through a flaming hoop, and although she's just a pup, she already spends hours each day roaming the fields behind the house, nose to the ground, following invisible trails. She's cute and sweet and almost exactly like B.C.--right down to the way she chases the cats away from her food bowl and pulls all the clean laundry off the line. But she'll be a lot smaller, and she doesn't bounce. Rex, of course, is ecstatic. And so am I.
October 2006 Note: Robin grew up to be a beautiful, smiling beagle who absolutely loves country life. She is a wonderful companion, an accomplished hunter of squirrels, rabbits, and even armadillos, a diligent watchdog with a deep, bellowing bark that belies her little size, and of course a crackerjack deer chaser. She is the stuff of so many happy memories, and I can hardly believe that she will soon be ten years old. Every single day I am grateful for the moment that Robin trotted into my life.
There are more stories where these came from. I'll post announcements on Farmgirl Fare and In My Kitchen Garden when the next one is up.