Deer Smarts: Hamptons Deer Learning to Get Along in Traffic

Deer smarts cartoon by Mickey Paraskevas
Cartoon by Mickey Paraskevas

Have you noticed that deer on the East End are paying closer attention to the traffic these days? I have. I was driving through the woods along a straight stretch of Stephen Hands Path in East Hampton late the other night when my headlights shone on a deer about a quarter-mile ahead by the shoulder of the road, eating some grass. I was the only car in the area at that hour and I did what I always do, which is slow down and look to see which way the deer would bolt. He’d look up, stare, then bolt. I also looked around for another deer. Like humans, they usually go around in pairs, or in threes or fours. Years ago, I went head-on into a deer that bolted the wrong way. Another year, a deer leaped out from the woods right into the side of my car. You don’t forget these things.

But that was then and this is now. And this deer didn’t bolt. He just looked at my car, nodded at me—had he really NODDED?—and then went back to his nibbling on the grass. I went by. Come to think of it, I haven’t hit a deer in years.

Is it possible? Could it really be that the deer on the East End have learned about cars?

If you’re new to the East End, you couldn’t say yes or no. But I’ve been out here for 60 years and I can say that because the average lifespan of a deer is maybe 5 years, this is at least 11 generations of deer from when I got here. Genetically, it is entirely possible a herd of deer could change in that time, lose their fear of cars, and keep their distance from them when they see one coming.

I’d bet statistics on this would bear me out. They ought to do an investigation. Compare the number of encounters between cars and deer as a percentage of the total number of deer and cars. These days it will be lower. And it’s not because cars or the people in them are smarter than they used to be.

Keep in mind that with genetics, among other things, it’s the survival of the fittest. Genetics could have played a part because the really stupid deer who startle at cars and race off into the driver’s side are just plain dead. The smart survive. It makes perfect sense.

The deer today also look smaller than they used to. This could happen, too. There have been hard winters for the deer population. Some winters they nibble clean the leaves on all the branches of the trees in the woods by late fall. Even the pine trees. You see the greenery starting about eight feet up. That’s as high as a deer can reach. Below that is just branches.

And that line gets lower and lower as the years pass.

I might note that in the years before the people of Japan embraced western ways, they were on average nearly half a foot shorter than the average westerner. This is four human generations ago. I certainly remember it. Now they are about the same height as westerners, just 2 or 3 inches shorter on average. Could it be diet—fish and rice in the old days—and not genetics? I don’t know. And I digress.

Here’s another digression. Ten years ago, my wife and I spent 12 days in the jungles of Africa—Zambia, Botswana and South Africa. A driver took us out in an open car, a Land Rover, to see the animals in the wild every day. It’s true that our driver and guide had an elephant gun mounted on the dashboard up front, but it was never used. We could be amongst lions and leopards, elephants and rhinoceros, some of them so close you could almost reach out and touch them. But they didn’t bother us.

“They think of the car, and the people in it, as predators,” the guide told us. “Predators don’t bother other predators, unless they go after the same prey or they interfere with the raising of their young. They aren’t going to bother you. Just don’t challenge them.”

We didn’t. And they didn’t.

I asked if it were always this way, and was told no. In the early encounters with humans and predators, there was lots of trouble.

“The predators learned because we shot them if they attacked us. So now their progeny, when they see us, think of us as pretty good predators, for some reason they do not quite get.”

Does anybody remember this next incident? It happened in Sag Harbor on Garden Street. This was way back when. These two big deer attacked a garbage truck. Knocked it over, tore it apart, ate the transmission, the engine, the tires, the driver, the trash bags, everything. Then the police came and shot them. You could see the other deer in that herd in the woods, looking on, the wheels turning in their heads.

Here’s another story. And this actually happened. An American doctor went to a medical conference in Moscow and befriended a Russian doctor there. The American, who speaks Russian, said he had a country house in the Hamptons. If you ever get to America, look me up.

A year later, up in the Northwest Woods, the police got a call one day from someone saying there was a crazy looking man who’d dart out onto the road and pick up road kill and carry it off. The police investigated. Couldn’t find anybody. The next day they were out and an officer saw a man doing this. The officer jumped out of his car and followed the man on foot through the woods to a remote cottage where the man, carrying a dead raccoon, went inside.

An hour later, police headquarters had called an American doctor in Manhattan on the telephone to tell him what was going on. The man they were holding spoke no English, but, when approached, gave the police a note with the American doctor’s name and phone number on it and indicated they should call him. The two doctors had been out at this fully stocked country house for a few days, but then the American doctor got an emergency phone call. He told his friend he had to immediately go to a hospital back in New York City, and he’d be back out as soon as he could and just eat the food, take walks, read some of his books and enjoy the place. Any problem with anybody, here’s my name and phone number. Just have them call me.

Out in back of the cottage, the Russian had been drying out the skins of the road kill on a clothesline. He was making fur hats. He already had made two. Over the phone, the police asked the doctor to talk to the Russian they were holding and tell him they’d drop all charges and take him home if he’d not continue to make hats.

The Russian agreed.

* * *

Last night I was again out on Stephen Hands Path, coming home from the office. In the dark, up ahead, there was another deer. He smiled and raised a hoof and wiggled it at me. I smiled back. Then drove on.

It has come to this.

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