The first movie I ever cried at was Bambi: I was on a plane, my mom was in the seat beside me, and once Bambi’s mother was—plot spoiler—killed by a faceless hunter, I understood that—life spoiler—it was possible for mothers to die. I knew other beings died, but mothers? Mine? I leaned over and ruined her sleeve with tears.
It’s not exceptional for people to cry on planes—science tells us we’re prone to it—nor at Bambi’s mother’s death. Yet deer death is a curious fixation of American culture. It’s no exaggeration to say that deer appear in Hollywood movies to be maimed or killed; always a shock, always a wake-up call. You can watch a three-minute supercut of deerus ex machina here, a repetitive yet no less brutal compilation, shocking in its very predictability (whether you should watch is a different question). But the examples are easily compiled: Tommy Boy featured an animatronic deer howling with surprise after waking up from a car-concussion; the Deer Hunter crewgave one a sedative to approximate death; and early in Get Out, the protagonist shares a chilling moment of kinship with the deer that he and his girlfriend have just struck; as life slips from the wounded doe’s eyes, the scene establishes the deer as symbolic sacrifice to the American horror gods: it dies so the black character can live.
If we widen the lens to take in the role actual deer have in our world—according to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, there are “more than 1.5 million deer-vehicle collisions each year”—and it’s hard not to tie a love of deer death onscreen to more sinister disdain for deer life. And one reason the death of deer has become such a popular narrative trope might be that deer life is a problem: “No…vertebrate species in the eastern United States has a more direct effect on habitat integrity than the white-tailed deer,” blogged the Nature Conservancy; rising deer populations not only pose an “insidious threat” to forest habitats, but “a bigger threat,” the article takes pains to insist “than climate change.”
It is a very strange comparison. But while deer populations are constantly discussed in this way, in terms of their feverish, uncontrolled growth—and the threat it poses to nature—it should be obvious that deer live in the world we’ve made for them. “As suburbanization patterns deepened and hunting practices faded,” as Amanda Kolson Hurley put it, people “have been seeing an ongoing resurgence of deer populations” as well as documenting them in ways they’ve never been able to before. Yet while it should be obvious that humanity is to blame for the state of deer life—that while we’ve brought deer’s main predators to the brink of extinction, the feverish growth of our suburbs has sprawled heedlessly out into deer land—it’s always the deer populations that are described as “exploding.” And it’s the population of deer that gets conflated with the spread of pestilence in the social imagination, as when we call the primary vector for Lyme Disease “deer ticks.” But these insects travel on many different mammals—dogs, cows, rabbits, and mice—and they don’t acquire the disease from deer, but from an earlier stage in their life cycles. And it’s climate change that has allowed Lyme disease to spread beyond its first appearance in the 1970s in Lyme, Connecticut, to places where it had once been too cold and snowy for ticks to survive; alongside wildfire, water temperature, and weather, Lyme is one of the four indicators listed in the EPA’s 2014 study on the future of the US in a warmer world. But because we ascribe our planetary doom to anything other than capitalism, deer take the brunt of the blame for the epidemic.
And so deer in America have become bringers of disease, eaters of gardens, and rats with hooves; their expendability neatly dovetails with the “cultural heritage” defense of the second amendment and the stockpiling of weapons to help control them. Even the term “buck” for a male deer has deep associations with a slavery-era term for strong black men, as well as, tellingly, American currency. They are sacrifices. They are spent. They die so we can live.
Deer dwell on the boundary between “us” and the wilderness, what we quaintly like to imagine as “not us”: as liminal creatures, they prefer the borders between deep woods and developed spaces. They are most visible at dusk and dawn, transitions between day and night; they breed in the fall, that pivot between life and death.
Perhaps because of the way they span the transition between wild and tame, civilization and not, deer have become the perfectly uncanny vessel for the symbolic weight of our disgust. Like us, they are a highly adaptable and diverse species, and like us, they inhabit every continent on the planet. They pose no threat to humans, but they exist free of us; the word deer comes from the Old English term for “wild beast.” We break horses and farm cows; deer, we only hunt.
What, I wonder, do deer see when they see us? They have a still watchfulness about them, a vigilance combined with balletic movement and speed that seems at odds with how prone they are to death by auto. Indeed, they have terrible vision, though they can see UV light. Their eyes are positioned to create only one blind spot, directly behind them, and yet our headlights blind their night-adjusted eyes and stun them.
At least tens of thousands of years ago, homo sapiens from France to Indonesia to South Africa attempted portraits of deer-like animals. We may have drawn them before we drew ourselves. But unlike more recent cinematic interpretations, ancient drawings depict deer as upright, living creatures, with almost godlike reverence: bringers not of plague, but of sustenance and life.
I find joyful traces of that reverence in the uncanny social media account of a young Dominican-American man named Kelvin Peña, who goes by the handle “Brother Nature.” In 2016, Peña began posting videos of his interactions with deer who frequented his suburban yard, naming them individually as well as collectively (Deer Squad), talking to them, feeding them (“Everybody eats!”), and giving them distinct, accurate-seeming personalities. The deer, surprisingly and profoundly, return his love. In a tweet that has gathered over a hundred thousand retweets and nearly half a million likes, Peña records from his phone as his beloved Canela idles along a grassy roadside. When a doe suddenly, inexplicably, bounds into oncoming traffic, Peña’s fear is so visceral; his voice warbles with unmanufactured terror: “Canela, watch out!”
As a heart-stopping addition to the sub-genre of deerus ex machina, the clip is powerful because it is real, because the deer is not harmed, and most of all, because the wakeup call of the scene Peña captured is not tied to a deer’s death, but to its life, to how much that life meant to Peña and to us. When Canela narrowly avoids getting hit, we breathe a sigh of relief; as Brother Nature later tweeted: “Bro I almost cried when I thought Canela was gonna get hit by a car I’m not even gonna lie.”
In Brother Nature, I recognize an ancient love for deer that those early cave painters must have known, an affection for how animals are more like us than not, how the basic cravings, love and food and community, are the human connections with deer that we should revere, in their lives as in ours. Our lives, our fate on this planet are literally and symbolically connected to theirs.
To love deer more is to love us more.
In the timeline of climate change, humans are the deer caught in headlights of a car too many refuse to admit they have built, even though humans are driving it, capitalist aristocrats immobilized by the brightening, intensifying glare of mass extinction. With hundreds of millions of climate refugees, intensification of storm damage, rising sea levels, the warming has already reshaped our world. The devastation is here and ongoing. There is no number of deer we can sacrifice to save ourselves from the ecological destruction of capitalism. Perhaps that is the least sexy and most depressing thing we can learn from deer. That they are part of our ecosystem, part of the natural, transcendental design and balance of an idea bigger than them, bigger than us.
Deer are not here to teach us anything. They are here, as we are, to live.
Among the Yaqui and Mayo of Sonora, noted for festive dance ceremonies performed before a hunt, the feeling towards deer is one of gratitude, a way of thanking deer for lives sacrificed for ours. The dance becomes a way of bestowing upon the deer a spiritual place in the universe, a benevolence beyond hierarchies of worth. It’s a far cry from the pests some have come to see when they see deer.
Do they need saving? Those who see deer as pests overrunning the country, those who saddle them with blame for an epidemic human activity has aided, these people may, like our planet, be past saving. And Brother Nature cannot save the deer, or save us from extinction. But cervidaphiles like him can and do connect us to a history of reverence and joy for deer, documenting what little time we have left with each other on Mother Earth and making it all the more precious while it lasts. I guess, in a way, Bambi helped prepare us all for that.