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Listener Essay - Killing

Tom Reichner

Patricia A. Nugent is the author of The Live On: Saying Goodbye to Mom and Dad, a compilation of poems and vignettes about caregiving for and losing a loved one. She also write the play The Stone and the Ripple, about a modern day reunion of the founding suffragists. At her home on Great Sacandaga Lake, she is currently plugging away at her manuscript about her golden retriever’s spirituality.


Just outside my dining room window stands a statuesque four-point buck, silhouetted against the dark blue mountain lake. Head held high, he cautiously surveys his surroundings.

I love seeing deer around my Adirondack property, even though they carry ticks that latch onto my dog, giving her a chronic case of Lyme disease. I’m delighted when these graceful creatures come out of the shadows to be in plain sight, yet worry that hunters can then see them too. I often wonder why the Creator gave them a white tail, making them readily detectable as they flee predators.

We gaze at the buck through the window for several minutes, commenting that he’s very still – unusual for such a skittish animal. Eventually, he begins to take small steps – with a considerable limp. That’s when we notice the round puncture wound in the middle of his back, right near his spinal cord.

A bullet hole?

We continue to observe, as he makes his way toward the neighbor’s lot.

“What should we do?” I ask.

“I don’t know, but it would be best if he didn’t die on your property,” Rick responds.

Although that sounds insensitive, I agree. Animal carcasses can be a problem, attracting other critters (including my dog) and creating a stench that can travel a far distance. A sweet pungent odor, the smell of rotting flesh is unmistakable once you’ve experienced it.

After a discussion regarding strategy, we return to the window and are relieved that the buck is no longer visible. We tell ourselves he must be OK if he’s able to keep moving.

“Keep an eye out for him,” Rick instructs as he heads out the door. “Chase him off your property if you see him.”

I tell him I couldn’t and wouldn’t do that. I know he wouldn’t either.

Assuming the buck couldn’t have ventured far, I call an Adirondack wildlife rescue organization. I first reach a man in the process of releasing a wolf that won’t leave. He tells me to call his wife, who then refers me to Wendy, a rescue worker closer to my property. But before each hands me off to the next, in the few seconds they can spare, they all tell me the same thing: It’s nearly impossible to rescue deer. They spend their lives terrified of everything; that’s what saves their lives. They have no defenses against predators, save speed. If deer are captured, they typically die of fright – their hearts can’t take it. They go into cardiac arrest.

“They’re especially terrified this time of year,” Wendy elaborates. “Hunters have driven them to the point of distraction. They run in front of cars more frequently. And many die a slow, painful death because of a few sloppy or lazy hunters who don’t bother to take careful aim – and instead just shoot when they see something move. It’s the exception rather than the rule but still…”

That’s what I’d read in Chris Bohjalian’s novel, Before You Know Kindness, in which he explores, through a fictionalized story, the pros and cons of hunting. I’d hoped it was more fiction than not.

Wendy continues. “This is also mating season. The wound you see could be from a more mature buck that he challenged. If you could get a photo of his wound, we might be able to assess whether there’s any hope. But please know that nothing can be done if his leg is injured.”

“I don’t know where he is. And even if I did, I probably couldn’t get close enough for a photo.”

Wendy must hear me sniffling so tries to offer some hope. “Well, deer are very resilient. If you didn’t see a lot of blood, it’s possible he’s already on the mend. Deer live with all kinds of injuries. Maybe he’ll be OK. But if you see him again and he’s still struggling, I suggest you call a compassionate hunter.”

A compassionate hunter to kill the young buck. And this time, I’d be the one pulling the trigger. I try to tell myself that would be more merciful than letting him suffer. And might provide a few meals for a family. But, to me, it seems counterintuitive that to rescue the buck, I’d have to arrange his slaying.

When I look out the window a few hours later, I’m relieved to not see him. As we do with so many gruesome experiences, I’ve been able to put it out of my mind. It’s too hard to carry nature’s grief around; we break if we can’t find a way to forget the insidious darkness the world holds.

I head down to the shore to collect a few rocks. Suddenly there’s a commotion in the tall grass ten feet away. The buck rises and slowly retreats.

Perhaps he’d hunkered down to die. There in the tall grass. And I’ve chased him away – something I said I wouldn’t do. Or maybe he was just resting. Either way, I’ve disturbed the injured animal.

As he limps away, over the rocky, uneven terrain, I fall to my knees. “I’m sorry. I’m sorry,” I call after him. “I’m sorry.”

My hollow words echo off the mountains, reverberate off the lake. I offer my apology to the world.

Rick isn’t here to witness my penitence. At my insistence, he’s meeting with a pest control service to thwart the mice trying to set up residence at his house.

More killing.

The buck doesn’t go far; I can see him standing in the next lot. My denim-covered knees are cold and wet on the sand as tears roll down my cheeks. I cry for what his suffering represents: An unnecessarily injured world. My grief is cumulative, following news of yet another terrorist act. And more news of violence toward a minority in our country. I weep for our collective inhumanity. For the fear and pain that have become embedded in our daily existence. For those so full of hatred that they feel compelled to slaughter other human beings.

Preemptively, I also shed tears for the mice that will die in traps when they’re simply trying to survive the winter.

Isn’t that what we’re all trying to do?

With a final glance at the motionless buck, I walk up to the house to make a phone call.

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