The great deer riddle

Among the infinite number of disconnects between city and country folks, my favorite is The Animal Thing. To city people, wild animals are something they see only in zoos. To us, wild animals are something we see all the time. In fact, we see them so much, we don’t particularly think of them as wild at all.

It’s not like we’re hipped on hand-feeding marshmallows to the bears or inviting the raccoons onto the porch with us for steak tartare. We’re not so dumb that we’ve forgotten that wild is wild. But seeing a bear or raccoon, a porcupine or fox, or a beaver or otter isn’t going to send us running for either shelter or a camera. Nonetheless, I think we all appreciate seeing our wildlife. I know I do.

Actually, I’m such a hopeless animal lover, I enjoy having squirrels around – even as they’re scarfing up the food I put out for the birds. But of course I like seeing the exotics more, precisely because they are exotic.

The few times I’ve seen bears in the woods have always followed the same scenario. First I think, What the hell is that Newfoundland doing out here? Then I realize, No, it’s not a Newfie – it’s a bear. And immediately after that, the bear spots me. We stare at each other for a long moment, and then it instantly sprints away. I’ve never been scared of bears (and statistics bear out – so to speak – why I shouldn’t be), but I’ve always been fascinated by them. There’s something about that eye-to-eye contact that jolts me every time.

Then there are the eagles. Eagle sightings always draw me to a halt. I guess that’s because eagles were so close to extinction that I never saw one till I was in my late 40s. And even after that, though there are a fair number of them around, I’m lucky if I spot them once or twice a year.

I’m a total dud as an ornithologist. I can tell a crow from a humming bird, and a jay from a great blue heron, but beyond that, I’m not very good at identifying them. But when it comes to eagles, I’m spot on. Of course, that’s because everyone is. Before I saw my first eagle, but had heard there was a pair around, I was talking to someone, saying I didn’t know if I could identify one. He said, “Oh, that’s not a problem. You’ll know immediately, because you’ve never seen a bird that big in your entire life.” Truer words were never spoken.

My ultimate eagle sighting was just outside Potsdam. I was by a lake, just chilling, when suddenly I saw something huge and dark swooping down over the water. I looked and sure enough, it was an eagle. Then, as I focused on it, it hit the water and came back up, with a gigantic fish in its talons. Next, it flew directly over me, maybe only 50 feet or so – so closely I could see both the fish and the eagle in exact detail. I felt as if I was staring in some National Geographic documentary.

The aching question

Of course the wild animal we see the most is deer. And even though they’re about as common as grey squirrels (though a lot less common than black squirrels), I never tire of looking at them. I do tire of the fat doe who keeps plundering my bird feeder, but I don’t tire of looking at her. And ditto for the rest of them.

And maybe oohing and ahhing at fawns makes me a softy, but if so, I suspect a lot of my fellow Adirondackers are softies as well.

There’s something that confounded me about our deer. They’re by the Petrova field, they’re on Riverside drive, they’re by the armory I’ve even seen them on the hill across from the fire station. I may not see them every day on my drive into town, but I certainly see them every week. Yet when I was a kid I never saw a deer in town.

In fact, I remember the first time I even heard of a deer in town, in the fall of ’72. My landlord, Howard Marshall, told me he was amazed that morning when he saw a deer walk down the middle of Charles Street. Since Mr. Marshall was no kid at the time, I assume he hadn’t seen deer in town, or if he had, it’d been eons since he saw the previous one.

But here’s the thing: The Adirondack deer herd had its lowest population in the 1970s. The peak of its population was in the ’50s and ’60s (at least since they started recording its population), and now it’s somewhere in between.

And thus The Great Deer Riddle: Why were there no deer in town at the height of the herd’s population, but they’re all over the place when the herd’s smaller?

I mulled over this for years, but came up with no answer, till I had a conversation with my old boot camp buddy, Billy Wallace.

and the brilliant answer

I don’t see Billy very often, but whenever I do, it’s a treat. He’s one of those rare birds who’s always friendly and up for a gabfest. And he’s got that rare gift that when we’re done talking I always feel better than I did before.

It seems we always start talking about our Navy days, but after that, we branch out to other notes of interest – Our Home Town in The Good Old Days; Characters We Have Known and Loved; How Saranac Lake is The Center of the Universe, and so on.

But in that particular conversation, I brought up The Great Deer Riddle.

“I just don’t get it,” I told him. “When we had the most deer, none were in town. But now with fewer deer, they have the run of the place. How can that be?”

Billy thought for bit and then said, “Might be the dogs.”

“The dogs?” I asked.

“Sure,” he said. “Remember all the dog laws we used to have?”

I thought for long moment.

“I didn’t think we had any dog laws at all,” I said. “Or if we did, no one obeyed them.”

“That’s it,” he said. “No one’s dog was leashed, and they were running everywhere. And so no deer. They were in the woods because the dogs kept them there and kept them there 24/7.”

He paused a moment, and then went on.

“But now?” he said. “You see one stray dog and you notice it, immediately. People keep their dogs at home or on leashes. And if they do run away, they get picked up by the Humane Society in no time.”

And thus The Great Deer Riddle was solved at last!

But even if that’s not the answer to TGDR, it’s at least one answer.

And it’s not just a good answer, but good news as well: It’s good for the deer, good for the dogs, and its especially good for the tourists who are here in The Wild and Untamed Northwoods we call home.