A few minutes into watching the documentary “Touching the Wild: Living with the Mule Deer of Deadman Gulch,” the story of wildlife researcher Joe Hutto and his study of mule deer, I became aware that I was meeting an extraordinary person.
Joe, who lives on a ranch near the Wind River Mountains, of Wyoming, had dedicated himself to patiently earning the trust of the deer, and after two years the deer finally began to respond. Once he won full acceptance from their matriarch, a doe he called Raggedy Anne, he could move among the individuals in the herd: He had become part of the family. He was to spend the next years of his life with the deer, who are keenly intelligent animals.
The mule deer live in families, and each deer has its own personality. There are family bonds, and the deer will stay with and mourn for a dying member. The deer themselves are, well, dear. With big soft ears and gentle, intelligent faces, it’s hard not to fall in love with them. Joe guards against anthropomorphizing the animals, but notes their “human” qualities, and wonders if loyalty, love, and the ability to grieve and mourn aren’t actually common to many animals, and aren’t really solely human at all.
The hardest scenes in the documentary are taken during hunting season, when hunters “hunt the region hard.” Joe has hunted all his life, but with mule deer populations falling, feels that they should be protected. When a hunter kills a mule deer Hutto has known since the deer was a fawn, named Buck, he asked Hutto how old the deer might be. Hutto responded, “I know exactly how old he is. I’ve known him since he was a speckled fawn. I have all his shed antlers.”
Hutto feels that a hunter should know what he is hunting. Instead he sees hunters with high-powered rifles and high tech devices shooting from great distances, never truly entering into a contest with their prey. The moment when old Buck is loaded into a pickup truck like a sack of potatoes is a really hard one to watch.
After watching this documentary, you may wish to read the companion book to it, also called Touching the Wild.
Hutto is the author of Illumination in the Flatwoods, which was made into the celebrated PBS Nature documentary, My Life as a Turkey, chronicling his exhaustive study of wild turkeys. He is also the author of The Light in High Places, an account of living alone in the high country of Wyoming observing the life of the Rocky Mountain bighorn sheep.