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Encountering wild animals acting not so wildly in the woods

A white-tailed deer.
Creative Commons
A white-tailed deer.

Has this ever happened to you?

You’re walking on a trail and there’s a deer off to the side. And instead of leaping away, it turns and starts walking toward you, taking its time but progressing nonetheless, step by step, looking right at you, titling its head the way deer do, assessing shape and shadow, to take you in, this thing in the woods — their woods.

I’ve written about deer parading up my driveway after a heavy snowstorm. It seemed like a visitation from beyond, because it’s rare for me to see deer in my yard.

It’s less rare for me to see deer when I’m hiking and more often than not those deer start walking toward me, as if to determine what I am. Friend? Foe? Neighbor? Intruder?

What is it the deer sees, perceives? Obviously it doesn’t take me for a predator, for no animal approaches a predator.

And though, admittedly, I am a little deer-like, being roughly the same height, with similar hair and eye color, I am no deer. I walk on two booted feet and dress in clothes.

When I hike I keep a mental note of all the critters I see and hear. It’s good to know who I’m sharing the woods with; it’s good to keep track.

Animals need to know too, need to be vigilant about their surroundings. And just as there’s people that bird-watch, there are probably birds that people-watch.

For many years, humans have had uneasy relationships with wild animals. We cut down their forests; they eat our crops. But these deer encounters make me feel uneasy in a different way.

Though I find such attention pleasing, it is also deeply unsettling and against what I consider the norms of nature. Deer should leap away. There’s an invisible boundary between us I want us both to maintain.

When my cat runs toward me and hops in my lap, it’s all good. She’s tame. We sit together in a rocking chair, faces warmed by woodstove and sun.

But out in the woods I want what’s wild to stay wild.

Commentator Susan Johnson is a senior lecturer at UMass Amherst.

Susan Johnson is a poet-biologist-rhetorician who teaches business communication at UMass Isenberg School of Management. She lives in South Hadley, Massachusetts.
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