Prove your humanity

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If you live in Pennsylvania, or many places in the US, you are probably used to seeing and even interacting with white-tailed deer. They stride into gardens, feed in small groups in parks, and, unfortunately, end up on the sides of roads and highways as the result of vehicle collisions.

a woman with long brown hair is sitting outside

Author Erika Howsare. Credit: Meredith Coe.

Erika Howsare investigates our sometimes complicated relationship with these animals that so commonly live among us in her new book “The Age of Deer.” Howsare grew up in Pennsylvania and now lives in rural Virginia. She traveled as far as England, Texas, and New Jersey for research. She visited an enclosed hunting park, studied cave art, and even learned to tan a deer hide.

The Allegheny Front’s Kara Holsopple spoke with Howsare about the book.

Listen to the conversation:

Kara Holsopple: What are some of the old myths and stories about deer that we still live with today? 

Erika Howsare: There is a pretty rich body of mythology and tales about deer. There are some really fascinating ones that have deer and humans shapeshifting into each other. There are a lot of stories about deer that kind of lead someone on a quest. The deer will appear, usually to a hunter, and of course, the hunter starts pursuing the deer and ends up in a new world or a new life.

There’s a beautiful story from Indigenous people of Washington state and British Columbia that has a human hunter essentially marrying a deer woman and becoming part of this clan of sort of human deer beings that keep shapeshifting in and out of deer and human form.

But I would say the stories we’re still living with the most today would be the ones where deer are victims. Where they turn into victims of hunters or victims of misfortune. And I think that really informs a big part, certainly not all, but a big part of the way we look at them in our contemporary world. 

Kara Holsopple: Yeah, victims of our cars and vehicles — that’s a whole section of your book. You write that many people today would say there are too many deer now for the way that we live our lives and that many of us hold on to an outdated ecological belief about the balance of nature.

The idea is that, left to its own devices, there’s a natural balance of plants and animals, and that includes deer populations. But there aren’t any humans in that equation. So how does that line of thinking contribute to how we think about what the right number of deer is? 

Erika Howsare: We do tend to start saying that there are too many whenever they are making life a little bit inconvenient for us. So as you mentioned, vehicle collisions are a really common problem. And also, of course, landscaping, damage to gardens and farmers crops. That’s a big reason that people get annoyed with them. And then Lyme disease is also on that list. But you know, those are all cultural factors. So that’s part of what we call cultural carrying capacity, which is how many deer people will tolerate. 

There’s a totally different measurement called biological carrying capacity, which would be how many deer a habitat can sustain. They’re two very different numbers. The biological carrying capacity tends to be higher than the number people will easily tolerate.

The more you’re talking about deer in a suburban or urban space where there are lots of people and lots of roads and cars and buildings, the harder it is to say what that biological carrying capacity might be. But, in any environment, there’s some scientific disagreement about how many deer is the right number for a habitat. When you don’t have any large predators, which is true throughout most of the eastern US, it just becomes really hard to pin that down. 

Kara Holsopple: You might know, in Pittsburgh, where I live, they’ve started a pilot deer program in a couple of city parks — that’s a bow-hunting program. You traveled to Princeton, New Jersey, where they have this well-established, professional program, and you looked at the butchering process afterward and how these deer were processed. And I have to confess, it felt a little gruesome to me as I was reading it. I felt uncomfortable.

But, as you point out, somebody is doing these jobs. Throughout the book, you follow lines of inquiry in your reporting that seem to make you uncomfortable. Maybe not that scene, exactly, but can you say a little bit about some of those roads that you traveled and why? 

Erika Howsare: Well, the Princeton trip definitely was one of those. I don’t necessarily think it’s comfortable for the people who do it, either. You know, there’s nothing easy about the killing of animals or the processing of their bodies.

I will say I’d spent the previous evening watching those carcasses being collected from the people who were doing the shooting. The butchering process was kind of therapeutic in a way because I was seeing that these animals that had been less than 24 hours ago, walking around, living their lives, then I had seen them as bodies and, and then seeing those bodies being transformed into meat that was going to go to a food bank and become food for people who need food.

If there’s any kind of redeeming thing about this situation, it’s that, so I was glad that I got to see that. And I knew, in general, that I needed to observe some aspect of that culling process in some location because it’s a common, widespread thing that happens all over the country. It’s a big part of our human relationship with deer. And that’s really what I was trying to investigate was that relationship more than the deer themselves. It’s how we relate to them.

Kara Holsopple: You grew up in western Pennsylvania, but hadn’t been deer hunting until you went with your brother, and then joined some other family members in Punxsutawney on a hunt as research for the book. How did that experience change you and how you experience deer?

Erika Howsare: I would say that did somewhat come out of hunting, but it also just came out of, in general, a greater appreciation for deer that developed in me as a result of the research and especially learning about how close we came to wiping them out in the early 20th century, I just developed a sort of gratitude for the fact that they’re here and they’re here in numbers, and we do get to see them in our daily lives. 

Near the end of the writing process, I was talking to someone I know, and I described the project to her. And she said, oh, so are you hanging out with the deer then? And I thought, no, I guess I haven’t really been hanging out with the deer.

I’ve been reading about deer a ton and kind of talking to all these people and going to these places where people have some professional connection to deer, but actually, just hanging out with the deer? No, I haven’t been doing that enough.

So I started to do more of that. And I realized that there is this kind of hunter’s way of going out into a space and hoping to see them. So it’s not just passively happening to see them, but you’re trying to make it happen and how much that changes your way of moving and your mindset. It becomes very, very exciting to see any little sign of them. So that was that was pretty neat for me to experience that change.

Kara Holsopple: Deer have occupied a place in the human experience and imagination for millennia. What can we learn from deer now, in the time that we’re living in?

Erika Howsare: One of the watchwords or key phrases for me in the writing process was “life among the ruins.” That applies to deer in many ways, but especially in the sense that they are able to thrive in densely populated, human places–in cities and suburbs.

White-tailed deer, especially, are just so good at adaptation and learning their way around the obstacles that people have put in their way. I think we’re all living among the ruins in some sense right now. We’re living in a time of climate crisis and all kinds of environmental degradation. And we have to make our way amongst those things.

I was recently in Pittsburgh and took a walk around, part of the city where the amount of kind of trash and litter was extreme. We were walking through a little patch of woods, and there was so much broken glass, and there were also lots of deer trails. And we saw a deer in somebody’s yard at the end of the walk. And I thought, that’s just so emblematic of how they are.

I’m still amazed by the sort of miraculous fact that a large mammal can live, thrive, reproduce, and find enough to eat in those kinds of environments. And that’s true all over the place, not just in Pittsburgh. So I sort of look at them as heroes of adaptation. And I think our task, certainly as people, is to adapt to the situation that we’ve made, the situation that we’re in. Of course, try to make things better, but to learn how to live with what’s here now. And deer are really good at that.

Erika Howsare is the author of “The Age of Deer: Trouble and kinship with our wild neighbors” from Catapult. She’s published two previous books of poetry and teaches writing. Her work has been published in many national outlets.