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Thursday, May 30, 2002

May 30, 2002 - Jerry Dumas - Winning our fencing match with the deer

Winning our fencing match with the deer

I would like to submit a report on progress at our place since, as I mentioned recently in a column about something else, we have completed our installation of deer fencing. The deer are free to roam the front yard, but can't get into the back or most of the side yards anymore.

It is becoming clear that the fencing is a success. Now that vegetation has leafed out, we can see what a difference having no deer chomping non-stop through the night can make. Take a rose bed, for instance. I had no idea our roses could bloom in such profusion. In past years I could see, as I walked around in the morning, where deer had bitten off buds and new soft growth at the tips of canes, but I really had no idea of the extent of the damage. It is possible that the weather has been just right for roses this spring, but more likely it is the fact that those voraciously graceful four-legged eating machines are around the corner eating someone else's roses.

My sunflowers are also doing nicely. Last year the deer left them alone, and I figured that sunflowers don't make it with a deer's taste buds; they left them alone, that is, until the 10-inch diameter flowers approached their maximum beauty, at which point the deer chomped them off, stomping the asparagus below as they dined.

We used to see as many as seven or eight deer in the back yard, and when we got up in the morning it was always both interesting and disheartening to look at them. They are such lovely creatures that it's a shame, like certain girls you knew in college, they leave such destruction in their wake.

One winter we arose one morning to find that two inches of snow had fallen, and at least one deer had taken a walk across the pool cover, puncturing it with its hooves in four or five places. It surprised me, because I had thought that deer, being sensitive creatures, would have backed off with the first shaky step. But that's the mistake we make when we think about wild creatures: We think of them as being all alike. It may be, as with humans, there are smart deer and stupid deer. Until the pool cover incident, a costly mistake (to me, not to the deer), I hadn't considered that in each deer family there was always one dim-bulb, one who never learned, the one the rest of them knew would never amount to much.

One of the main problems with our place is that we have every single thing that deer love to eat. We have dozens of crab apple tress, and I've seen deer, after devouring all crab apples on the ground and on lower branches, stand on their hind legs for minutes at a time to get those once thought beyond their reach. We have oak trees; deer, I can attest, think acorns are the nectar of the gods. We have one peach tree, two pear trees and we used to have a plum tree, and when deer had done away with whatever fruit they could grab, they ate the twigs as a side dish.

I won't even go into what's been happening to the door frames and the stucco, except to say that it vexes me when my wife defends them, saying they're just restless.

But all that is a thing of the past. In the first weeks after the fencing went up, I would see hoof prints in the soil on the outside of the fence as they shifted uncertainly from hoof to hoof (I can read their little minds like a book), wondering what happened to a passage they had once trod so freely. Then the rains came and washed away their hoof prints, and in the weeks that followed no new prints were seen. And wonder of wonders, rose bushes and butterfly bushes and sedum that were on their side of the fence remained untouched. They had stopped coming to the front yard.

I came to realize they felt that if they couldn't stop, have a snack and go on through, they weren't interested in the area at all. Deer don't like to be backed into a corner or against a wall; they want the freedom to move in any direction.

As do we all.

Jerry Dumas, who lives in Greenwich, writes and draws the comic strip Sam and Silo and contributes gags to Beetle Bailey. His articles have appeared in Smithsonian, The Atlantic Monthly and other periodicals.

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