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28 september 2014

Earlier this year, in Glacier National Park, I was stalked by a deer. A hungry doe with no fear of humans followed us along a rather busy hiking trail. People stopped in awe, and the noise we were all supposed to make to scare away grizzly bears melted away. I was reminded of this experience by John Fletcher's insistence, in his book Deer, that human encounters with deer are privileged. They contain something of magic, something of wildness, something of wonder – even when the encounter is with a scruffy and streetwise park veteran.

Deer are everywhere in North America. Any driver who ventures even a little of the way out of a city, at any time of day but high noon, must allow for the possibility of meeting a deer by accident. I wouldn't say deer are as common as squirrels or mice, but they are far from rare animals. Yet we stop and marvel at the sight of them, when other mammals wouldn't even register.

Deer, says Fletcher, have evolved in a symbiosis with humans across millennia. The more studies of animals that I read, the more I am impressed by the shades of distinction in our relation with neighboring species. Deer have often been held captive, sometimes tamed, and never fully domesticated. (Except for reindeer; and, Fletcher argues, except for commercially-raised red deer in New Zealand, which within the last few years appear to have reached the condition of fully-domesticated livestock.) They're a little like kangaroos, a little like wild geese, a little like bison, something like llamas too, with a hint of rabbits, and a lot like none of the above.

Deer are hard to manage for one of the reasons that makes them attractive to humans. The male's antlers are largely functional in the precisely-timed annual rutting season. The rest of the year, deer are apparently pretty nice. But rutting stags, their antlers fully developed, are extremely dangerous and completely intractable. The same qualities that make a rack of antlers a trophy make its possessor a formidable enemy.

Fletcher is the most pro-hunting author I've yet read in the Reaktion Animal series. This despite his credentials as a deer-herder, and deer-wrangler extraordinaire for movies and TV shows that need deer. No sentimentalist, he's at the same time very pro-cervine. He notes continually that deer and agriculture are incompatible. As farms spread across temperate Europe and North America, deer populations crashed. But as farms have retreated, deer roam pretty rampantly. Hunting, which proved sustainable for thousands of years as a subsistence activity, can be salutary for deer and people alike, if practiced respectfully and with an eye to conservation.

Deer-hunting is not sustainable as a commercial industry, though. Unleashing profit-driven hunters on even the most plentiful species leads to extinction via the "tragedy of the commons," as the fate of the passenger pigeon showed. For that reason – and because people have valued deer a great deal more than pigeons – the trade in domestic venison is illegal in the United States. And I think the ban is by and large observed. At least nobody's tried to sell me deer meat out of the back of a station wagon lately.

Deer have been tabooed from the market in other cultures, for other reasons. Fletcher traces the history of deer parks in Britain. Some of these preserves date back to medieval times; some deer populations may be the remnants of prehistoric parks. The nobility had a hard enough time protecting their parks from subsistence poachers; the existence of a market for venison would have meant their decimation, fences and wardens notwithstanding.

Such curious proscriptions mean that most of us have eaten deer meat, but few of us have bought it. Everybody's had some of their brother-in-law's venison chili, or received a haunch from a hunter's freezer. Venison therefore is coded "gift," not commodity. The apex of deer-as-gift was reached in the British early-modern period, when the circulation of legitimately-taken deer meat from aristocratic preserves stood for noblesse oblige in the flesh.

Deer have figured in culture and art as shamanistic familiars, types of Christ, emblems of sovereignty, and impossibly cute cartoon characters that helped turn a whole society against deer hunting. Many myths about deer are based on impossible folk biologies that circulated through learned and sacred texts. Supposedly endowed with preternatural longevity, a magical relation to bodies of water, and the ability to recover from wounds and generate antidotes to poison, deer have seemed pretty special for such everyday creatures. It is no wonder we stop everything when a deer appears.

Fletcher, John. Deer. London: Reaktion, 2014.