by Joseph Yanuzzi

Leaves of red, orange, and yellow rode a light breeze and fell to litter the ground in a brilliant display of autumn colors. The leaves crunched loudly underfoot as I slowly made my way along the meandering trail. The leaves had made their final journey and their life cycle was now complete. There was a slight chill in the air and I could smell rotting wood from fallen trees, the pungent stench of skunk cabbage, and the appealing fragrance of burning wood from a fireplace somewhere nearby.

As the sunlight started to fade, my body filled with excitement as I neared the clearing in the feeding area. I could already see the large herd of deer forming, as they anxiously awaited my arrival. It was my second year of feeding the herd and I enjoyed it immensely. It had taken some time and patience, but their trust in me was nothing less than remarkable.

I had a backpack loaded with oats, grain, molasses and apples. It was a commercial blend of deer food that I embellished with some slightly rotten apples. As I approached the feeding area, the aroma of sweet molasses filled the air and was picked up immediately by the deer with their keen sense of smell. Anticipating their meal, some of the deer became excited and started to stomp their front legs and snort loudly, while others stood on hind legs and sparred with each other over feeding spots.

I quickly took the backpack from my shoulder and started pouring a healthy portion of the food on the ground. I repeated this several times, being careful to keep each feeding spot separate, so that each pile is individualized and acts to deter any food aggression from the deer.

The first deer to approach me was “Limpy.” He was the oldest and most dominant buck in the herd and he always ate first. “Limpy” got his name because a poacher violated the no hunting policy of this wildlife refuge and shot him in the hind leg, causing the large buck to walk with an exaggerated limp. Concerned about gangrene or a septic infection, I was able to obtain some medication from a local veterinarian which I mixed with his food and “Limpy” now had a new lease on life.

“Limpy” was a gentle giant that was easily distinguishable from the other deer because he had deformed antlers. This sometimes occurs in deer when they are young and either the antlers don’t form right or they are damaged.

“Limpy” was my favorite and as the other deer converged on their food piles and ate silently, he stood close to me devouring his food and always looking for more apples. He had no fear of me and I had no fear of him. We had a bond that was almost incomprehensible to most people, but for us it was a love and trust built over time and respect.

“Limpy” would often be the first to greet me when I entered the woods and the last deer to leave me when I left at sundown. There were times when he accompanied me on short walks through the woods, stopping occasionally to browse on something he found appetizing. People walking in the park were mesmerized by the sight of a man and deer walking side by side and often questioned me on how I formed such an unusual relationship. He acted more like a dog taking a walk with his owner, than a truly wild animal that was programmed to avoid the human element.

“Limpy” and I shared many walks and memories in the four years that I knew him. In one particular instance, I hadn’t seen “Limpy” in several days and because he rarely failed to show at feeding time, I became extremely worried about his safety. Then I was horrified to realize that archery season for hunters was already underway, and though hunting here was prohibited, poachers often violated the sanctity of this wildlife refuge. Had “Limpy” been killed by poachers?

After about a lengthy absence and exactly on the last day of archery season, “Limpy” came running to me from a distant hilltop. I was so glad to see him and know he was safe. After a couple of short snorts that usually meant he was hungry, I fed him his usual share of food that he consumed with great relish.

The rest of the winter was relatively quiet and when summer approached I did on occasion, see “Limpy” and some of the herd members. However, in the summer with dense vegetation, pesky mosquitoes and food plentiful, I made less contact and my trips afield were shorter. “Limpy” would still come to me, mull around a few minutes and then forage nearby. When autumn arrived I resumed my feedings and the entire cycle repeated itself.

Sadly, in the midst of the fourth year of feeding, “limpy” was killed by poachers. A witness to his death, an elderly senior familiar with the big buck, confirmed that he was killed by two hunters, dragged from the woods, and lifted into the back of a pickup truck which quickly sped off. The senior was unable to get a license plate number or accurate description of the violators.

Sadly, that would be the last winter I was to feed the deer. I felt like something was missing, the park was devoid of energy and no longer the same. I had lost interest in visiting the park and the few times I did, the memories along the trails where “Limpy” and I shared so many wonderful moments, left me stricken with grief.

Although “Limpy” is gone, his beauty and gentle spirit will forever roam those hills and trails and those wonderful memories will live in my heart forever.