A buck looks back: Quirk or gift?

Reaching my spot in the woods that morning, I had no illusions about my chances of seeing a legal buck.

My first three years, I had come up empty-handed. My fourth year, I had gotten lucky. This was my fifth year. Given that only one in eight Vermont hunters tags a whitetail each autumn, I had no right to expect that I’d bring home venison two years in a row.

On opening weekend of rifle season, I had hunted almost every daylight hour. And I had seen more deer than usual: one doe and one young buck who was probably a spikehorn, both illegal under current regulations.

This morning, though, and for the rest of the 16-day season, I’d only get out for the odd hour or two: almost certainly not enough time for a buck to come my way. I set my pack on the ground and sat down, my back to the half-rotten stump of a fallen maple. It was already getting light, sunrise not far off.

Four minutes later, I heard a deer coming.

The hoof steps were to my right, my view blocked by the brushy branches of a fallen hemlock.

When I saw the buck, he was already close, moving at a brisk trot, and one glance told me he was no spikehorn. He was crossing the slope behind me. There was no way to turn without being seen. I had to hope he would cross all the way behind me and offer a shot to my left.

No such luck. Just fifteen yards away, he looked in my direction, wheeled, and charged back the way he’d come. Having nothing to lose, I stood and turned to watch him go. Even at that close range, I wasn’t going to shoot at a running deer; the chances of a wounding shot were too high.

Thirty yards off, he turned to look back. I knew he’d be there just a moment.

There was no time to think through the shot, let alone brace against a tree for the kind of steadied aim I prefer—I’m a slow, deliberate hunter, not a quick, offhand shooter. There was just that one second to bring the rifle to my shoulder, see that his shoulder and front ribs looked like a barn door (something I could hit), decide that the bullet’s path was clear of branches, and fire.

The buck dropped in his tracks and lay still.

I stood there, stunned: by how fast it had all happened and how unlikely it all seemed.

Naturally, it could be explained. As I hiked in—tromping through crunchy, frozen leaves, making more noise than a moose—the buck must have been too far away to hear me, or making too much noise himself. The timing was pure coincidence. And his almost immediate pause and backward glance—a common behavior among mule deer, I gather, but less usual among whitetails—must mean that he’d scented but not seen me, and was curious to know where I was.

But that isn’t the only way to see it. Many indigenous hunting cultures say that animals “offer” themselves as a “gift” to the hunter. From a Euro-American perspective, this sounds like mere metaphor, perhaps aimed at making humans feel better about killing. Of course animals don’t “give” themselves to hunters. How ridiculous.

Or is it?

In his article “The gift in the animal” (American Ethnologist, Vol. 34, No. 1, 2007), anthropologist Paul Nadasdy argues that aboriginal accounts of hunting might be literally true. Among other evidence corroborating the views of the Kluane of the Southwest Yukon, he recounts how a rabbit escaped from one of his snares, then tried to get into his cabin five days later, with the snare wire still around its neck. It made no effort to flee as he picked it up and killed it.

What if Nadasdy is right? What if the Kluane view of nature and animals is as valid as the one I grew up with? What if there was more than chance at work in my encounter with that buck, more than a quirk of curiosity in his fatal pause? How would that change my hunting and the meaning of it?

There are dangers, of course, in lifting concepts like “animal” and “gift” off the surface of another culture. It can be rather parasitic. And we’re unlikely to understand what the concepts mean in the depth of their original context.

So let’s bring it down to earth and closer to home.

In essence, northern hunting peoples such as the Kluane understand animals to be “sentient and communicative persons,” as Nadasdy puts it. They see animals as beings who deserve respect, who are capable of feeling, suffering, and consciously interacting with each other and with humans.

In our own culture, how might we—hunters and non-hunters alike—tackle the challenge implicit in that view? How might we hold both the concept of animals as conscious fellow creatures and the concept of animals as food?

Humans, after all, are like that, too: conscious (more or less), yet ultimately consumable. Recyclable.

© 2010 Tovar Cerulli


  1. Arthur says:

    Oh, this is an interesting one. I have a hard time grasping all the mystical feelings associated with animals, though. I can understand the spiritual connection, but the idea that they “offer” themselves as sacrifices is a little hard for me to grasp.

    It is intriguing, though, considering the doe I shot with my bow last year spooked at 5 yds, then stopped and turned around at 20, and she’s now in my freezer.

    I’m looking forward to the comments on this one, and to see how it develops. It should make for some good reading.

  2. Tovar says:

    SBW: And here I was looking forward to seeing how you were going to develop the thread!

    Arthur: The “offering” idea is, I agree, a tough one to grapple with. Just bringing together “sentience” and “edibility” in a single vision of animals is probably more than enough to chew on.

  3. Tovar

    Well now that you ask…
    Have you ever been taken advantage of? either in a fairly benign way (by our kids or spouse) or in a less pleasant way (bullied at work, mugged, conned)?

    There’s is an oft repeated concept that ‘the mark wants to be taken’ there are endless examples of people who in hindsight say they knew the card game was bent but somehow carried on playing – almost to see how they were being played.

    your thoughts?

    • Tovar says:

      Sure, who hasn’t?!?

      Your comment reminds of something a fishing buddy of mine once said. He figured that in relatively calm, clear water fish usually see even the finest, most high-tech monofilament line. Yet they strike. He compared it to someone seeing a $20 bill on the sidewalk—attached to a string that leads into a side alley. A lot of folks, he contended, are going to chase that bill.

      Curiosity (which killed the cat, after all) about how one is “being played” is a bit different from intentionally forfeiting the game, yes?

      To decide if the “gift” concept has merit, we’d have to look at it much more closely and in cultural context, which would be a complicated endeavor to say the least. And even if it does have merit—and I do mean if—we’d have to juxtapose it with other concepts: it makes no sense to argue that every last mammoth, passenger pigeon, or auk “gave” itself to hunters. We’d end up with at least two kinds of hunting relationships, one involving some level of intention on the part of the animal, the other not.

  4. Ingrid says:

    Hi, Tovar, as always, a discussion-inspiring post. I’m familiar with some of the indigenous hunting lore. But in the case of anthropologist Nadasdy, it sure seems like he was reading the rabbit’s behavior through his own filter, one desiring the death of said rabbit. He could have just as easily interpreted the behavior in the opposite way — by saying the rabbit came inside to seek help in detangling itself from the snare, and instead met a grim and unexpected fate. In either case, we come up against that intransigent obstacle of human/non-human language (again).

    There’s another legend, Chinese in origin, I believe, which has a prize stag running for days from his hunter. When the hunter finally has the deer within range, the deer turns to look at the hunter — with his bow drawn. In an act of pity, the hunter sets down his bow and does not take the shot, whereupon the deer turns into a beautiful woman and future wife, as a reward for the hunter. So maybe you missed out. 🙂

    I realize that human theology and mythology are rife with explanations for the inexplicable or, at times, the unjustifiable. As much as I believe in our spiritual connectedness to “the other,” very much, in fact — in cases like this, I tend to think the buck is following his age-old predator evasion techniques, as you also suggested in your piece. I say this simply because it seems logical based on general behavioral patterns. Even though, you’re right, mule deer are more known to do this than white-tails. I’ve startled deer of a variety of species, unintentionally, and they’ve all looked back at me after tramping away to what would be a safe distance from a non-human predator. What surprises me is that they haven’t yet adapted to the idea that no distance is safe with humans in the woods.

    • Tovar says:

      Hi, Ingrid, thanks for your thoughts. Yes, my inclination is to read the buck’s behavior just as you do: a technique of age-old predator evasion that just didn’t work out so well, given the fact that I had a rifle and the evasion technique hadn’t adapted to that.

      Nadasdy’s arguments are, of course, much more complicated than I have represented here. His main point, as I read it, is that Western anthropologists should shift their thinking to “accommodate the possibility that there might be some literal truth to what [indigenous] hunters tell us,” a move toward “true agnosticism.” His aim, as I understand it, is for anthropologists both to gain “important new insights into hunting societies and the nature of human–animal relations” and to stop reinforcing systematic disempowerment of, and government control over, Native peoples.

      My aim is not to argue that animals “give” themselves to hunters. I don’t know if they do. I do, however, think that we could all use a heavy dose of “true agnosticism” when it comes to animals.

      Most importantly (in my view), we could stand to seriously consider animals as sentient beings. In our culture, I think we tend to perceive a false division, which I’ll overstate as: either you believe animals are sentient and become a vegetarian, or you don’t believe that and thus feel free to treat animals however you like (including hunting them). In truth, lots of people, including many hunters, straddle that divide.

      I think animals are sentient, deserve respect, and should not be unnecessarily harmed. The challenge is to integrate that with the fact that some degree of human harm to animals is inevitable (even in local, small-scale, organic agriculture) and the fact that my body feels a lot healthier when my diet contains at least some flesh foods.

      Given that I’m already happily married, I guess it’s a good thing my encounter didn’t end up like the one in that legend. 🙂

      And, for the record, in the thick woods I hunt here in Vermont, any distance over about 30 yards is usually enough to make deer quite safe.

      • Joshua says:

        I’d like to weigh in and say that the stop-action is over-characterized for mule deer. Much more frequently they start running and they are gone in a hurry.

        The same is true for whitetails. Stopping within a hundred yards of a pack of wolves is not smart predator-evasion, either.

  5. Ingrid says:

    Great points, can’t argue with any. Good . . . because I’m not in the mood to argue. 🙂

    I will say that it’s always been unfathomable to me that people can’t see and respect non-human sentience. To me, it’s a no-brainer. Of course, it’s convenient to go Cartesian, and reduce animals to machines. There are a lot of people and industries who’d have to rethink their entire, functioning and monetary models to accommodate an understanding of animal sentience.

    The middle ground you describe is, from my perspective, the toughest to navigate. Although I eschew meat, I am obviously witness to the natural and unnatural travails that befall some of our fellow earthlings, especially when I see the end result at the wildlife hospital. I am consistently at a loss to explain, especially, those deliberate acts of cruelty. My only recourse has been to ameliorate those effects when I can. I realize you try to do the same by abiding by a rigid sense of ethics when it comes to your hunting. If everyone did just that — took responsibility for how they let or didn’t let another suffer — we’d be in a different world for sure.

  6. Ryan Bovard-Johns says:

    I just wanted to add that the author and activist Derrick Jensen shares stories of his small family farm when animals have “given” themselves to his family for food. He actually recounts stories where he had directly told a specific duck that it was “his time” and after several days of the duck running and hiding he finally walked right up to Derrick and let himself be slaughtered with no fighting. It was as if he needed a few days to get ready and needed to do it on his own terms in his own time. Derrick says it better than I could but “A Language Older Than Words” is a great book about how the natural world speaks to us and even communicates in ways our culture has long since forgotten how to understand.

    As a hunter myself I don’t know the answer to these amazing questions but I believe the simple fact that we are willing to ask them and consider the fact that animals have a greater spirit deeper than their nerve endings shows a consciousness in our decision making. Personally, animals show themselves to me in times of deep thought as if right on cue in a movie. I may be pondering something heavy or specifically significant and an owl will appear from a tree 20 yards away. That might be the only owl I see all year and it will be no accident.

  7. Joshua says:

    A great post. Wonderful and respectful.

    First, congratulations! A great deer. Your movement might have brought him in… he might have been looking for a fight, or out of curiosity, to see what was making the noise. He might have thought it was other deer. Who knows?

    In addition to the beautiful and reverential understanding of the folks who know this land, our own, Judeo-Christian tradition has at least one account of animals given by God – the ram in place of Abraham’s son – and other accounts of God providing, too. Something to consider.

  8. Tovar says:

    Ingrid: Yes, I agree—a lot of “retooling” would be needed to bring things into accord with animal sentience! And very true: tough ground to navigate, whichever path we follow.

    Ryan: Thanks for stopping by. It’s been a while since I read Jensen’s work, but I do recall him offering some provocative perspectives on these topics. Thanks, too, for being another hunter who asks these kinds of questions and honors the creatures who populate the earth.

    Joshua: Glad you enjoyed the post. True, there are lots of possible explanations for how and why that buck came in just then. Good point, too, about the existence of other accounts of human-animal relations in Judeo-Christian (and other) traditions around the world.

    That’s interesting about mule deer behavior. I’ve never spent time around them, so only know what I’ve heard from other hunters and read in wildlife biology texts and such. I recall reading that they’ll sometimes head for and around obstacles, to put the obstacle between themselves and their pursuers, in a different pattern than whitetails exhibit. I don’t know if it’s true.

    • Joshua says:

      Tovar, it’s true that they will put themselves around obstacles, but I don’t know if/how they do it differently from whitetails, because I’ve never hunted whitetails. I will say that I’ve seen mulies and blacktail use just about every trick in the book, from hiding to sneaking to running flat-out.

      The one difference I know of between our Left Coast deer and your deer is the stot. When I finally got to see whitetails run, I thought it was the weirdest-looking thing I’d seen a deer do. Stotting, to me, is amazing.

      • Tovar says:

        Hmmm. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a whitetail stot. From what I’ve read, stotting is far more typical of muleys (and pronghorns). Guess I’ll have to see for myself someday!

          • Tovar says:

            Ah, we concur then. The whitetails and I, that is: stotting is the weirdest-looking thing a deer can do. 😉

            My occasional Western visits over the years haven’t yet included deer-watching. Next time!

            • Ryan says:

              Tovar knows that I have hunted whitetail but that doesn’t mean I have seen them while doing so…Mulies however I am quite familiar with and I just had to add that if you, Tovar, are in need of some Mule deer observations or a trip out West you always have a place to visit or hunt in Colorado! 🙂

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