Here in rural NJ we have always had a bit of a deer problem. Often herds of ten or more would wander through, destroying carefully tended gardens and trees in the process. They also brought with them disease ridden parasites aptly named deer ticks. My friend Bill, an avid hunter, once told me of harvested deer so covered with the parasites that the skin was hidden under huge patches of bumpy engorged ticks. Delicious.
There are two common types of ticks in New Jersey; the dog tick and the deer tick. I have no idea if those are their scientific names, but that’s what they’re known as ’round these parts. The dog tick is what we used to call a tick when I was a kid since none of us had ever heard of deer ticks back then. They were about a quarter inch in size normally with a dark brown flat body and icky arachnid legs. They were easy to spot and easy to grab, though they were notoriously difficult to kill. If you found an engorged one it could be an inch long or more and swollen to the point of bursting like a juicy blood-filled grape. As a kid I remember throwing engorged dog ticks into the fire and waiting to hear the pop of them exploding. Farm life is filled with myriad other delightful memories of a similar type.
We had never seen deer ticks when I was a kid, or at least we didn’t know about them. Deer ticks are much smaller and can be much scarier since they are known to carry Lyme Disease which can be pretty awful. I have known people with Lyme Disease, and our Miss Daisy even had it before we got her. Dog ticks could carry Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever, but I had never known anyone to have that, and that somehow made it less scary. I’d never seen an engorged deer tick either, though I had no doubt that my hunter friend had.
Lauren grew up in Nutley New Jersey, which is a suburb of Newark. While Nutley had many tree-lined streets, there wasn’t the tick problem such as that we had in western New Jersey, so the first time we found a tick on Cozy, Lauren freaked out. It had been many years since I had seen a tick having lived in apartments for years, so while I’d like to think that I didn’t freak out, I’ll say that I was undecided as to the best course of action. Should we use Vaseline? Should we heat the body with a match tip? Should we put a lit cigarette to the tick’s body? Anyone who’s been around ticks has heard of these supposed remedies, all of which are generally a bad idea.
We knew that if we just grabbed it and yanked, we would risk leaving the head in the skin which could lead to infection and the continued risk of disease. I don’t remember what we ended up doing that first time, but it was fun over the years watching Lauren transition from a Nutley girl to a battle-hardened warrior skilled in the removal of ticks from the woods of western New Jersey. Today if one of the dogs gets a tick, Lauren just grabs the dog, digs in close with her fingernails and yanks the vile bug out, head and all. It’s impressive really, and she’s far better at it than I am. Not bad for a Nutley girl.
Deer tended to be a passive problem since they were usually not aggressive or otherwise troublesome unless you enjoyed growing a garden. They also didn’t come into houses like hungry bears had been known to do. Actually, the two biggest risks from having a large deer population were ticks and car accidents.
Deer were notorious in New Jersey for running into the middle of the road, stopping, and staring into the oncoming headlights. The deer in the headlights look is a real phenomenon, and I have experienced it numerous times myself over the years. They are a menace to navigation, and they are everywhere.
My first and only accident was as a new driver in 1981 when I hit a deer while driving my 1969 Ford Torino on a dimly lit country road. I was traveling at roughly 40 miles per hour and the deer jumped into the road 15 feet in front of me, then stopped and stared at my headlights as I drove right into it. Thankfully that big old car was made with good old-fashioned American steel and I only broke a headlight, but I was pretty shaken. The deer didn’t fare nearly as well.
As an adult, I’m a much better driver, but the deer are even more ubiquitous now without any natural predators to thin their numbers. Even with the large deer population and the advances in flea and tick control, we rarely saw ticks anymore, or if we did they would fall off of the dogs, dead or dying. Since we had two large canines patrolling our back yard on a daily basis, the deer stayed outside the fence, and if they came close, the dogs would usually scare them away.
Except during the rut.
Rutting season in New Jersey is when the male deer lust after females, get stupid, and get hit by cars. It’s romantic in a way, their desire being such that they would rick life and limb in the name of love. In our case we had one special rut when an especially stupid buck fell in love with Cozy.
We were afraid of getting Cozy spayed because she was our baby girl and we were wimps. Our fear led us to deal with Cozy being in heat twice a year before we finally had her spayed, and let me tell you, a 160 pound Newfoundland in heat is not a fun experience. We would routinely need to clean up blood spots from the floor, but the real problem for me was the smell. I have a very sensitive nose, and the blood and hormones and whatever else was going on was nauseating. Minimizing the unwanted pet population is the right reason for having our pets spayed and neutered, but man, the smell was enough of a reason for me. Still our fear was so powerful that we dealt with it for a couple of years. She was our baby girl and we were delusional, idiotic, first-time dog owners.
One year while Cozy was in heat, I was outside picking up dog toys from the yard in preparation for my weekly mow. While searching diligently for the Kong, I heard a loud snort from the woods. Naturally, I was convinced that we were being infiltrated by snorting zombies, so I went and let the dogs out. They came outside, oblivious to anything in the woods and started doing what dogs do when you let them out; they sniffed and peed. Then I heard the snort again, and both dogs stopped in place with their ears and noses twitching. One more snort and they bolted to the fence, barking and ready for action.
Normally when there’s something in the woods, the dogs will scare it away and then prance around the yard with pride, their tails up in the air, and a jaunty skip to their step that can best be described as a canine high-five. This time though, the snorting didn’t stop. In fact it got louder.
As I watched the dogs go berserk, a buck burst forth from the brush, the velvet coating on his antlers peeling like the skin of a redhead at the Jersey Shore in August. He stood his ground about ten feet from the fence and snorted, looking right at the dogs.
What the Hell?
Convinced that this was the first wave of a crazed undead deer invasion, I tried to call the dogs in but it was no use; they were beside themselves with excitement given the fact that the deer would not run away. The buck stood there, snorted once more, then pawed at the ground. Why wasn’t the buck running away? What on earth would make a buck stand its ground in the face of two crazed canines?
It’s no secret that men are idiots. We all know it, and though we may try to defend the notion when brought up by women, they know it too. Men are also pigs, and this too is not a well guarded secret. I would be willing to bet cash money that if you dressed up a woman in a Chewbacca costume, then put her in a skirt, more than a few men would quietly think that’s hot.
It is with this uniquely male point of view that I came to the realization that this buck was in love with my Cozy. Maybe love wasn’t the right word. Perhaps lust would be better.
Imagine that you’re a horny young buck running through the woods. You’re full of life, feeling powerful and young, and your peeling antlers itch like nobody’s business. All you want out of life is a willing doe. You know that you’re a damn fine looking buck, and the ladies can hardly resist your eloquence, antlers, and and charm. Imagine now that you get a whiff of something – oh my yes – it’s a willing doe in heat! She doesn’t smell quite right, but you’re so hungry for some lovin’ that you follow the scent anyway.
Closer and closer you get, whiffing the air with anticipation. You break through the forest, your brain on fire with lust. You can’t wait to have her. You MUST have her! You step through the tree line and there she is: 160 pounds of gnashing teeth and furious barking. Your kind of woman! Torn between lust and fear of being eaten (which makes it all the more exciting, honestly) you stand just outside the fence in horny, itchy confusion.
As a man, I can almost guarantee that was what was going on. I’ve been there. I know what it’s like.
This went on for a few days. The buck would come and snort, the dogs would bark like mad, and we’d have to haul them back inside. Lauren decided that this buck was profoundly stupid yet somehow lovable, so she named him Homer. Seeing as how I had not read any epic poems from the amorous buck, I assumed his namesake was instead Springfield’s own Homer Simpson. Homer would come to the fence and snort at Cozy who would bark and bark and bark, obviously having no interest in inviting him in, and yet homer would return again daily, undaunted, frustrated, and itchy. The whole scene was disturbingly reminiscent of my entire high school existence.
It was all fun and games until we woke up one morning and found Homer dead in our front yard where it appeared that his daily trip to the fence had been interrupted by a car. We were sad for a short time as was appropriate, then called the town to have him removed. The town apparently only cared about dead dear if they were on the road, so I set about dragging him up to the street. The term dead weight is applicable because Homer was not so easy to drag, likely as a result of his being so very dead. I managed to drag him up the incline to the street and once more called the town. They said they would send someone over on Monday since it was then Saturday.
The next day Homer was no longer on the street. In fact, he was ten feet away from the street and surrounded by turkey vultures. He also smelled, shall we say, less than pleasant, so there was no way in Hell I was dragging a smelly, fly infested partially eaten deer carcass back to the street. Unfortunately he was back in our yard, which meant that he was closer to the house.
While I pondered what to do, the turkey vultures kept their macabre vigil. Turkey vultures are profoundly ugly birds with giant wingspans and little fear of humans. While feasting on Homer, one of them even challenged me while I was in the car. He stood there in front of the Subaru with his wings spanning the entire driveway as if to say back off – this one’s mine. I considered my options and decided that if they weren’t afraid of a Subaru, they weren’t likely to be impressed by me.
When they would take breaks from their feast of rotting Homer, the vultures would roost in the trees causing Lauren to wonder if they might try to fly off with one of the dogs. I assured her that they weren’t that big and that they only ate disgusting, rotting, dead animals, and though Cozy smelled pretty bad, she was none of those things. It was an unsettling sight at any rate. It was like having a flock of those freaky flying monkeys from the Wizard of Oz in our back yard.
The next day the smell got impossibly worse. Even more disgusting, thousands of huge flies covered the carcass. I cannot convey the depth of revulsion I felt towards Homer at this point, and so decided that this was no longer funny. Oddly, the carcass had moved another 30 feet or so leading me to conclude that something was pulling this body across our yard at night. We wondered at first what it could have been. Foxes? Wolves? Stray dogs? Zombies? A chuppacabra? I didn’t want to think too much about it in all honesty.
The next morning Homer was gone. We found some bones in two separate piles some 40 feet from the street, but in three days, a large buck had been completely devoured. Nature’s clean up crew had dealt with Homer before the township had even started to care.
Cozy remained indifferent to the fact that she had cause the death of a virile young buck by rebuffing his advances. As countless women would no doubt agree, it wasn’t her fault that he was stupid.