Aug 28 2008

The Day I Stopped Traffic on Harrison Hill

Published by at 1:15 pm under Tidings from Gabriola Island

Last week I stopped traffic. It was a somewhat nostalgic moment. As a high school student in Winnipeg, I couldn’t walk along Grant Avenue  without being accosted every few blocks by young men proffering rides in their automobiles. I would huffily decline and push on, annoyed but secretly flattered.Half a century later, the attraction is no longer my looks (fast fading as I approach 60), my attire (decidedly shabby and démodé) or my figure (thickening and spreading!). No, this time I was thoroughly upstaged by my two female companions, lithe of leg, long of lash, with slightly exophthalmic, dewy brown eyes.

A doe and her yearling were following me up the road on my daily one-kilometre trek to fetch a vactioning friend’s mail and then to her house to feed her cat. Alerted by the sound of tiny hoofs, I turned and sternly instructed them to go, but to no avail. Up we went, in single file, much to the consternation of motorists who had to stop their cars as my retinue darted across the road at the approach of every vehicle, and to the delight of one trucker who stopped to tell me that a couple on nearby Mudge Island had deer that would swim after them if they left by boat (the only way off Mudge Island!). By the time we reached the top of the hill, another man was videotaping us!

The deer followed me to the mailboxes, to my friend’s house, and caught up with me again half way down the hill on my way home a half hour later! By then, I was humming “Mary had a little lamb” with new lyrics.

Why were they following me? In anticipation of being fed, of course. I was in a hurry and had blithely left our property without putting out the buckets of cob (a sweetened mix of flattened corn, oats and barley) they were expecting.

This situation is entirely my husband’s fault. Our first spring on Gabriola Island, we’d noticed that several deer in our yard were coughing violently, thoraxes heaving, with what looked like bronchitis or pneumonia. Concerned, we tracked down the provincial wildlife biologist in Victoria, our province’s capital. She explained that after a long, cold winter, deer can come down with a wasting disease that attacks their lungs, often killing them.

We admitted that we had been feeding deer. She was adamant that we stop. Feeding, she said, would lead to over-population, too much competition for the same habitat, twinning of fawns and double litters per year, one in the spring and another in the fall when a fawn’s survival is problematic.

Doug refuses to follow her advice and has been feeding deer ever since. “They are my friends,” he insists, whenever I try to reason with him. “Their habitat is being steadily destroyed, so we have to feed them. Besides, I like having them around.”

And around they are: immobile on our slate deck, staring at us through our windows, curled up in our garden beds and along on our driveway, chewing their cud or sleeping contentedly, stretched out on the grass—often just a few feet away. When they here us, they stream into our yard from down the road or across the street. Visitors complain that they can’t get out of their car because the deer won’t budge. The huge, antlered bucks can be intimidating. They run toward us, and our guests, instead of away. When we put out cob, dozens arrive at a time and, true to the wildlife biologist’s predictions, our well-fed does produced adorable, perky twin fawns in the spring. The particular doe that follows me around is quite round of belly, with prominent teats, perhaps pregnant with a fall litter. However, we have had no more sick deer, probably because they are well fed enough to resist infection.

Since accompanying me on my first sortie, they have done it several times since. One day I decided to visit a neighbour two blocks away. I looked behind me as I reached the intersection of her street. No ungulates. Relieved, I turned the corner and carried on. Moments later, three deer appeared in hot pursuit: my faithful doe, her yearling, and this year’s singleton fawn. We arrived at her gate together, much to my neighbour’s delight, but not to mine. Three deer even ran after my husband’s car the other day—another unfortunate first!— and made it half way down the block before dogs scared them off.

Enough! We have inadvertently turned these wild animals into free-range livestock, who crowd us whenever we step outside, licking their lips, begging for cob. It’s time to wean them from the trough, but I suspect the biggest hurdle will be my husband’s cooperation.

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