I was halfway through my run when I saw her. Per our custom, we both stopped to gaze at each other. She was graceful, silent and beautiful. Then as quickly as she appeared, she was gone.
Moments later, I found myself at the edge of a thoroughfare, wondering whether I should cross the road and continue on the trail or double back. Since it was getting dark, I decided on the latter. That’s when I noticed the sign posted on the tree beside me.
On January 10, 2014, and continuing for seven weeks, the powers-that-be in suburban Montgomery County, Maryland, will turn Wheaton Regional Park into a killing field. Moreover, this “deer management” program won’t be limited to my neighborhood, as nearly a dozen area forests plan to ring in the New Year with sharpshooters.
I was still staring at the poster as the sun began to set, all the while asking myself the same two questions: What can I possibly do to stop this slaughter? And why does this feel so damn personal?
I re-read the sign for the umpteenth time and did a double take. Save for the year, the dates of the proposed shootings mirrored a period of 2013 forever etched in my memory.
A nasty infection, coupled with a benign tumor in my head left me incapacitated for the first two months of the year, after which I had to teach myself how to walk again. Thousands of baby steps later, I theorized that I might be able to accelerate my recovery by jogging on uneven terrain -- thereby forcing my brain to integrate cues from my eyes, legs and feet repeatedly, in rapid succession. The place that I chose to conduct this experiment was on a rock and root-filled trail in Wheaton Regional Park.
For the better part of the year, I stumbled down that path as often as I was able, returning home more times than I could count with a sprained ankle. Yet I kept going back. Not only because my balance was slowly improving, but also because I’d discovered a new source of joy, wonder, and inspiration -- qualities that had been missing from my life for far too long.
With varying levels of frequency, I’d see deer along the trail. And each time I did, my morale was boosted exponentially. One doe in particular popped up with astounding regularity. She set herself apart by wagging her tail whenever we met -- a gesture that never failed to make me smile. As the months went by, I began to feel as though the deer were making a conscious effort to guide me through my rehabilitation, offering the support, encouragement and reinforcement I so desperately needed.
The sign that had stopped me in my tracks was now barely visible, as darkness had set in. Struggling to keep my composure, I thought about the profound debt I owed to each of them. Without their presence, I couldn’t have pushed myself the way I have during my recovery. Now, their days seem to be numbered.
What’s maddening about all of this is that you don’t have to look very far to find ways for deer and humans to peacefully co-exist. Vaccines, delivered by darts, can prevent does from becoming pregnant for up to three years, which, in turn, diminishes their need to expand their foraging area. Deer-proof fencing has been shown to decrease the number of collisions with automobiles, as has reducing speed limits and keeping sight lines clear for drivers. The list goes on and on.
What’s missing is our acknowledgement that we are responsible for reducing their living area to the size of a postage stamp. With that comes our obligation to make things right, even if it takes some extra effort.
My wish for the New Year is that the people of Montgomery County summon the will to do so -- before anyone pulls a trigger.