Data and Bones and Wonder

I don’t have a moment where I fell in love with deer. Looking back, I guess I must’ve fallen in love with deer in the same way that at some point I started writing and shooting bows with my right hand. Much in the same way, I know I love deer in the way that I know I have brown hair and that I hate the freckle on my cheek.

My family’s ranch in northeast Wyoming has both mule deer and whitetail deer, and my mom, the science teacher, spent hours with my brother and I as children, teaching us how to tell the difference at a glance. How a mule deer bounds, and while they have white on their hindquarters, they aren’t the same creatures as the white-tails running away, flaunting their fluffy white tails at us. How to look for a fork versus a beam in an antler buried in the snow and know what kind of animal left it there for us to find on a snowy Sunday hike. Such little science lessons are what I look back on as the cornerstone of where my life has taken me, why I search for antlers on every dusky horizon and look for hoofprints beside my own tracks on worn out game trails.

When I hear the word “ungulate” I picture hooves. Even-toed deer tracks in the snow in my backyard or hundreds of imprints in the red mud trailing between the oaks lining the road at the ranch. I often imagine a mule deer’s big floofy ears turning intelligently in the wind and dense, coarse hair that I wish I could dig my fingers into. I feel my hands tangled in the mane of a boney old mare, riding bareback and scarring up bands of whitetail in the pasture by my grandmother’s house. I remember nights spent skinning out deer with stiff, chilled hands in the November freeze of our garage, laughter from neighbors clutching beer cans echoing in the concrete space. I can see the neighborhood dogs dragging in disembodied deer legs from that winter’s kill in the hills behind my house, bones that seem impossibly delicate when they aren’t attached to the powerful creatures they came from.

When I was twelve, I shot a mule deer for the first time. I remember the adrenaline rush as my sight tunneled down the scope until it was all I could see, my parents sitting deathly quiet nearby. I remember that it was nearing dark, so learning to dress the animal took a backseat to the coyotes howling nearby, to move the animal closer to home. Two years later, a whitetail buck fell on a blustery autumn day. Both times, my family followed our tradition of making backstrap biscuits and gravy to celebrate, followed by weeks of processing into steaks and roasts and jerky.

I’m not the only one in my family to form an affinity for these animals. It almost seems that loving deer is an expectation of holding my last name.  My brother set up his own bonafide volunteer butcher service in high school, and rarely was there a fall day that our garage wasn’t filled with harvested animals, green Game and Fish tags tied to them in a row. My parents spent much of their off time before kids hunting together and with their families: bear, elk, sometimes birds. Always deer.

When I went away to college, I decided I wanted to be a doctor, and then a therapist or a counselor, and then finally a biologist. All of these things have in common that they are based around a typically idealistic goal of helping. Finally, I decided as a freshman in college that I could set out to research the inner workings of an environment and through doing so perhaps help wildlife someday. And like it was destined for me from the start, I fell back to deer.

The summer before my senior year of college, by a brilliant stroke of luck, I was able to meet myself as Taylor, the deer researcher. In the field for the first time, I was able to cultivate the way my mind works in tandem with both nature and science. I was able to connect to these wild creatures in a new way, through morphometric measurements, blood collection, and collaring. I was given the gift of knowing what a newborn deer looks like in its first few hours, how their natural camouflage works in real time, and how special it was to be part of a deer’s life from the very beginning as well as in the end. l learned to do necropsies, how to piece together story from flesh and bone and what’s left behind when an animal passes on. And now I know that as researchers and biologists we want to minimize the invasive work that we do on these animals, for their sake, but I’ll forever be grateful to have been allowed into these brief glimpses of a deer’s life.

No, there is no one profound moment for me and deer. Rather, my romantic heart has always sought to appreciate the magic brought into my life in little moments with these creatures, and I choose to allow those moments to shape the way I view the world still. And instead of warring with my idealistic notions, my scientific perspective encourages those moments with a respect for the untamable nature of deer. Deer are ever present in our lives. Everyone has a deer story: one about hunting, or hitting one with their car, or watching them eat bird seed in the middle of city limits. My life is punctuated with deer stories, and at this point, all I can do is marvel at them exactly how they are as I attempt to glean their secrets from what little data they’ll give.

 

Taylor Kennah just graduated from the University of Wyoming in Wildlife and Fisheries Biology and Management, with a focus on terrestrial animals and a love for mammals. She has called Wyoming home her entire life and shares her adventures on Instagram @taylor_liv14.

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