Do Deer Have Feelings?

Posted on June 27, 2017

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In the 1929 classic, Bambi, written by Felix Salten, anthropomorphism (the attribution of human characteristics to animals) was given to all of the animals within the story, a technique that was later popularized by Walt Disney. As an example of this we read the following excerpt:

 

 

“Now,” said Bambi’s mother. “Get away from here. And don’t stay too close to me.” She was off with a bound that barely skimmed the snow. Bambi rushed after her. The thunder crashed around them on all sides. It seemed as if the earth would split in half. Bambi saw nothing. He kept running. A growing desire to get away from the tumult and out of reach of that scent which seemed to strangle him, the growing impulse to flee, the longing to save himself were loosed in him at last. He ran. It seemed to him as if he saw his mother hit but he did not know if it was really she or not. He felt a film come over his eyes from fear of the thunder crashing behind him. It had gripped him completely at last. He could think of nothing or see nothing around him. He kept running…

He stopped with a jolt. A deer was calling him. Again he heard the cry. “Is that you, Bambi?” Bambi saw Gobo floundering helplessly in the snow. All his strength was gone; he could no longer stand on his feet. He lay there half buried and lifted his head feebly. Bambi went up to him excitedly.
“Where’s your mother, Gobo?” he asked, gasping for breath. “Where’s Faline?” Bambi spoke quickly and impatiently. Terror still gripped his heart.
“Mother and Faline had to go on,” Gobo answered resignedly. He spoke softly, but as seriously and as well as a grown deer. “They had to leave me here. I fell down. You must go on, too, Bambi.”
“Get up,” cried Bambi. “Get up, Gobo! You’ve rested long enough. There’s not a minute to lose now. Get up and come with me!”
“No, leave me,” Gobo answered quietly. “I can’t stand up. It’s impossible. I’d like to, but I’m too weak.”
“What will happen to you?” Bambi persisted. “I don’t know. Probably I’ll die,” said Gobo simply…

 

 

Suddenly they saw Aunt Ena coming and rushed towards her. “Aunt Ena,” cried Bambi. He had seen her first. Faline was beside herself with joy and bounded around her. “Mother,” she cried. But Ena was weeping and nearly dead from exhaustion.
“Gobo is gone,” she cried. “I’ve looked for him. I went to the little place where he lay when he broke down in the snow …there was nothing there…he is gone…my poor little Gobo.”

 

Emotion in Animals

The debate continues as to whether or not animals, and whitetails in particular, experience emotions similar to humans. Throughout history a variety of answers have been suggested; some in favor, especially those with close interactions to wildlife, while others on the flip side determinedly say no. At its core the question is difficult to prove since we cannot verbally communicate with a deer.

 

 

Over time, scientists have been very cautious in recognizing emotion in animals, beyond the capacity for pain and fear. According to The Oxford Companion to Animal Behavior, “One is well advised to study the behavior, rather than attempting to get at any underlying emotion.” Yet, the ambiguity surrounding the entire subject leaves ample room to question who is indeed right. And, if indeed we were to learn that whitetails do in fact have emotions, would it change anything?

 

Despite being a behaviorist when it comes to the white-tailed deer, I am also of the feeling and belief that they certainly have emotions and display them, beyond fear and pain. For instance, when a buck goes to the extent of compromising his security, missing meals and sleep, to run after a doe in order to breed her, it is more than just an innate function. He is after the pleasure that accompanies the act. What about when two bucks battle? Is not anger associated with such an aggressive act of violence? The fawn cries when its belly is empty, which has nothing to do with fear or pain. I have witnessed far too many examples of deer displaying emotions during my career behind a camera to dismiss it as just a hard-wired response to external stimuli. Obviously, the way deer respond and express their feelings will be different than how we may show emotion, but that is no reason to doubt the veracity of it. I will tell you that I don’t know when a deer is pouting, feels sad, is happy or grumpy except by viewing the animal’s behavior, but isn’t that what we do when evaluating humans? I can know for certain that I love my wife, but unless I show signs of it to her through my behavior how would she ever know?

 

A Sad Tale

The genesis for this article really stemmed from what I’m about to relay to you. I have no desire to convince anyone as to which position to take on the subject, only to think about what you have read. Trust me, believing deer have feelings won’t make you less of a hunter anymore than being convinced they don’t display emotions will make you more of one.

 

 

I was returning a bit early from an afternoon hunt due to icy roads and blowing snow. The drive back to town was slow. As I rounded a bend in the road, a yearling deer bounded up onto the surface directly in front of my truck. Unable to slam on the brakes I made every attempt to gently apply them and swerve to the right to avoid hitting it. Unfortunately, the driver’s side bumper hit the eighty-pound deer sending it somersaulting across the road and into the opposite ditch. I pulled into a driveway a few feet from the impact area; more to ensure someone didn’t hit me as they came around the bend than for convenience, and had my partner go to the door to call the authorities. In the mean time, as I walked back up the road to check on the deer, a big doe jumped onto the road and crossed heading directly for her fawn. When I reached them, the doe was making every attempt to get the little deer up, but despite all its effort, it could not stand.

 

 

Daylight was fading fast as I went back to the driveway, hopefully to learn what was the protocol for a deer-car collision in Canada. I knew I couldn’t leave this deer in the state it was currently in. The gentlemen of the house explained after talking with the police that they would not respond unless there was damage to my vehicle, which there was not, and that I could take the deer if I wished.

One of the most difficult undertakings I have ever faced as a deer hunter was now my responsibility to handle. I removed my rifle from its case, and walked back to the deer. On the short hike I was hoping above all hope that the animal would miraculously regain its feet and walk into the forest. Instead, its mother was standing just above where it laid grunting pleas for her fawn to get up. Despite the danger of me standing there slipping a round into the chamber, the mother deer was maternally determined not to leave her youngster.

 

 

The shot at dusk will linger in my mind as loud as it did when I ended what my bumper began twenty minutes prior. As I turned to walk away, tears intermingled with sleet now stung my face. I could still hear the pitiful grunts of the doe as I walked. I shall never forget what I saw next as I paused for one more glance; there was the mother licking and prodding her now dead fawn to get up and follow her. Please don’t try to convince me that whitetails haven’t any feelings – I painfully know better!

 

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© 2017 R.G. Bernier Nature Photography – All rights reserved.

 

 

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Posted in: Whitetail Deer