From my perspective, the sight of a wild deer is a gift. I grew up in suburban Illinois, and though we saw an occasional deer over the years, I could count how many I’d ever seen, close or at a distance, on two hands. The midwestern plains our homes were built on meant our neighborhoods held few patches of forest for them to hide. I longed to see them, to observe them, perhaps to lock eyes for a moment, to send them a message: You are safe with me. In the 65 years I lived in Illinois, that opportunity never happened.
Moving to the Olympic Peninsula in Washington state changed everything. Blacktail deer have been passing through my backyard almost daily since we built our house two years ago in this heavily forested neighborhood about 15 minutes from downtown Port Townsend. Our neighborhood is about 1 1/2 miles long by about the same distance wide, bordered by State Park forest on one side, Puget Sound on another. 1 1/2 miles is generally the territorial range of a blacktail deer, which means these deer live here, in the neighborhood, full time. This is their territory, and we share it with them.
Here, in an area more rural and heavily forested everywhere, their numbers are greater. Deer have adapted well to our invasions of their territory, and have managed to thrive regardless. From the time I moved in, I watched them from my windows for months. I researched information about these deer, both locally and in general, about their habits and behavior. I read complaints on the app Next Door from a number of residents in town cursing the quantity of deer and the damage they do, sometimes even describing them as aggressive and dangerous. I heard from neighbors who also loved to watch them, and from those who preferred not to see any on their property. Most neighbors who insist on planting deer delicacies such as roses and other flowers soon learned to fence them off from deer, use motion-activated sprinklers, or various smelly sprays to deter them. Dogs will deter them as well, if out in a fenced area.
Personally, I knew from the start that I didn’t want to deter the deer. I have dogs, so carefully checked my yard to be sure it was free of deer before letting them out. I purposely had shrubbery and flowers planted that were not a favorite of deer (though the words “deer resistant” don’t always hold true). I lost a few plantings here and there to the deer, especially young fawns, who will nibble and taste just about anything as they are learning what is good to eat. But I consider that normal “collateral damage” for the privilege of viewing these wild, gentle, graceful creatures.
When I heard from one neighbor that she knew of a few folks that fed the deer apples on occasion, I finally decided I was going to try it. There was a mother and older fawn that came through regularly and often watched me with curiosity if I was out on my patio. So, on one visit I went into the house and cut up some apples, and threw the pieces out to them, as I moved back to assure them they were safe. The apple pieces were soon gobbled up by the little family, and shortly after the doe and fawn went on their way.
This became the beginning of a relationship with these two particular deer, one that grew and changed as time went on. I named them Wilma and Pebbles, and the fawn was particularly curious from the start, and the most likely to appear first, hopeful and waiting. Wilma did not like to share with Pebbles, so I quickly learned to throw their apple slices in opposite directions so Wilma wouldn’t chastise Pebbles. Sadly, Pebbles was about 9 months old when her mother Wilma appeared in our yard with a badly broken leg, and then was never seen again. We believe Wilma became a local cougar’s prey, since there had been a predation in the neighborhood a few days before. Only Pebbles returned from that point on, looking a bit lost, and she began to come daily and sometimes more, to visit, receive some apples, and bed down in a safe place for a nap.
Pebbles and I soon came to an “understanding”. She would come into my yard, stand about three feet from the stone wall of my patio, always in the same general spot, staring in my window hopefully. I would come out with sliced apples, and eventually I could sit on the wall while I fed her, at first by throwing the slices, and later by putting them in a bowl. Over time, I added wildlife feed on occasion as well, which is basically nuts and seeds and a bit of corn. For me, this simple interaction with Pebbles each day was a dream come true. My friends back in Illinois soon started calling me “the Disney princess”, with all the photos I was posting of me and my little friend Pebbles.
I am well aware that feeding deer is a complicated and controversial topic. I was always torn over whether I was doing the wrong thing. “Don’t feed wild animals” I was told. “They’ll become dependent and then starve if you don’t feed them”. “They’ll get aggressive!” But after months of interactions with Pebbles, I saw neither aggression, nor any detrimental dependence. She came by regularly, yes. I fed her an apple or two, and a couple handfuls of wildlife seed. Hardly enough to fill her belly for even half a day. She was friendly, but cautious. Over time, as she grew, she sometimes disappeared for weeks at a time, but then would return. She was never “aggressive”, instead quickly bolting if I ever moved too suddenly or too boldly toward her.
I understand the “why you shouldn’t feed wild animals” caution. I do. But I think it depends on the type of animal, as well as how and how much you feed them. Food should not be left out around your yard, ever. Makes perfect sense. I do not want a visit from a bear, a bobcat, or a cougar—they pose a danger to my family and my pets. And while I love raccoons, they are far more dexterous and capable of causing damage to my home and my pets as well as bringing disease, so I never feed them, either. It took me days, for example, to convince one raccoon that she was not welcome IN my house...she kept coming to my patio door and pawing as if to come in. Several squirts of water from a hose finally convinced her to seek accommodations elsewhere..
But I do feed the birds - I have a hanging bird feeder that enjoys a lot of visitors, as well as a hummingbird feeder. It’s interesting that pretty much no one thinks feeding birds is bad for them or us. Aren’t they wild as well? Heck, they could poke your eye out if they wished to! I feed the squirrels, too, in a squirrel feeder I’ve hung on a tree, and I put just enough in that they will quickly empty it daily, otherwise it attracts raccoons.
As for the deer, feeding Pebbles—and another doe named Jane, who visits with her babies—in a limited, responsible way brings me pure joy. They wait patiently for me to come out of the house and put some snacks in the bowl. They allow me to stand close by, talking to them and photographing them. They look me in the eye with curiosity and cautious trust, and Jane has even sniffed my cheek and allowed me to pat her head, as she is far bolder than Pebbles. They are sweet, gentle, and they trust me not to hurt them. I treat them with the same respect I would a horse, knowing they are capable of inflicting damage on me but not motivated to do so as long as I am kind and careful.
So, I refuse to feel guilty about it anymore. No matter how I interact with the deer, I am not attracting them to the neighborhood—they live here already. I have seen no evidence that Pebbles and Jane are now chasing after people in the street demanding food. They are smart enough to know the difference. They pass through our yards naturally, with or without interaction. They aren’t dependent on me, but they enjoy visiting (sometimes daily, sometimes only once a week), and I enjoy their presence more than words can ever say.
After all, most people believe that it’s important to “love thy neighbor”. And I do—some of them just happen to have hooves.
Donna J. Abear is the author of a children's play SPRUCEY, THE BLUE CHRISTMAS TREE, a memoir RELATIVELY CRIMINAL, and a humor book MOM…YOU’RE NOT NAKED, ARE YOU?. Married, mother of four, grandmother of two, and a “dog mom” too, she is living her dream in the Pacific Northwest among the trees and wildlife she loves.