Fear the Deer—Nature's Unstoppable Killing Machines

Much like The Jesus, deer you do not f*ck with. Huge antlers, razor sharp hooves, and a taste for human flesh (probably), hoofed mammals—including deer, elk, and moose—can prove deadlier than you think. The Book of Deadly Animals examines their murderous ways.

The elk's shoulder was nearly as high as my head. When it walked, the muscles rolled beneath its hide. Its antlers had eight points – nine, if I counted one broken short, its splintered end showed like the tip of a whittled stick. The darker fur on its neck looked like five o'clock shadow. Its eyes focused on two-year-old Parker, who was taking an interest in a ragweed right outside its chain-link fence. The closer he got to the ragweed, the closer he got to the elk. Suddenly there was a loud noise, like the puncturing of a tire, and the buck lowered its head, aiming its antlers at my son.

My wife was quicker than I was. She scooped him up and hurried away from the chain- link fence that separated us from the elk. Before she had covered six feet, the elk seemed to relax. She had taken Parker beyond some territorial boundary invisible to us.

‘Why did you pick me up?' he said. His brow wrinkled.

Why, indeed? The fence would have stopped the elk. My wife had only saved him from a scare. Really, though, she and I had moved on nothing but instinct. I approached the fence and shook it to satisfy that the thunder in my ribcage was uncalled for. The fence was sound. But now the elk looked in my direction. I backed away, and again he relaxed.

Most male deer possess antlers – bony branched horns used for defense and for fighting among themselves. They are for sexual display more than use, and their impracticality necessitates their seasonal shedding in most species. To maintain them through the hard times of winter would cost too many calories.

Bucks duel each other for territory and mating privileges. These fights can go to extraordinary lengths. White-tailed deer bucks have been found in dead pairs, their antlers tangled and locked so tightly they couldn't extricate themselves. They died of thirst or stress. The truculence of deer can go further than that. I know of one case in which a buck was found with the decapitated head of another locked in its antlers. Biologists posited that the living buck picked a fight with an already dead rival and tore his head off.

This truculence transfers easily to humans. In 2005, for example, a man was tending the tomatoes in his backyard near Rancho Santa Fe, California, when a deer appeared. It gored him in the face and head. Bending over to pick tomatoes probably looked to the deer like a fighting stance. In 2006, a seven-point white-tailed buck attacked an elderly man in Pennsylvania, butting and goring him in the head. When his wife came to his defense, she, too, was attacked. The violence stopped only when police shot the buck to death.

Deer kept on farms and in zoos and wildlife parks have also injured people and even fatally gored their keepers. In 1997, in Belle Fourche, South Dakota, a man who kept reindeer as part of his Santa Claus act was attacked by a 550 pound bull in heat. When the bull tried to gore him, the man latched on to its 31-point rack of antlers. The reindeer carried the man – who weight 370 pounds – in the air for forty-five minutes. Eventually it pinned him to the ground. Five other men tried to pull the buck off. When they finally succeeded, the buck fell dead from its exertions. The owner was not seriously hurt.

The larger the deer, the greater the danger it poses. American elk (also known as red deer or wapiti), like the one my son encountered in a wildlife preserve, often weigh 700 pounds. They occasionally attack people. The largest deer is the moose (aka European elk), which can reach 1,600 pounds. Some hunters consider moose a greater hazard of the Alaskan outdoors than bears, because startling a moose can lead to a fatal trampling. In Alaska, people occasionally get hurt when they try to shoo moose out of their yards. In 1995, a mother moose harassed by students on the University of Alaska's Anchorage campus killed a seventy-one-year-old man.

People have come into conflict with deer while hunting them or walking in the wilderness, but also while minding their own business in town. There are several cases of deer bursting through windows into houses, possibly confused by reflections. One deer attacked a woman waiting for a bus. Others plowed into an outdoor café and an auto repair show. But the greatest danger deer present is collision. In the United States, 4 percent of motor vehicle crashes involve animals. The animals most likely to be involved are livestock, pets, and white-tailed deer. More than a hundred people die from collisions with white-tailed deer each year. Other species, including elk, moose, and mule deer, have also been involved in serious collisions. Injuries from deer collisions have been estimated at nine to sixteen thousand per year. Airplanes have collided with deer on runways, causing damage but not, so far, any fatalities.

Excerpted from The Book of Deadly Animals by Gordon Grice (Penguin Books, 2012).

Fear the Deer—Nature's Unstoppable Killing Machines

The Book of Deadly Animals is available at Amazon.