Late March. The hills remain littered with snow in spite of our calendar's insistence that spring has sprung.
The signs that deer are more abundant and closer to the house multiply. I see no vegetation to my liking so imagine their hunger dare I call it desperation? forces them to do those things they'd really rather not. Just yesterday afternoon the dogs chased three out of the yard (a pastime I do not object to for the chase is short, the dogs are lazy, and the deer seem to acknowledge this as well).
I see more and more as I drive the back roads and am quite content indeed wary as I stay below the speed limit. It does surprise me that the deer seem to prefer a crossing which requires a very steep hill to transverse. (Oh, fleet of foot, do you expect me to chase you?) With so many flat spots along the road, why pick the hardest climb? (That said, they do make it look quite easy.)
All of this got me wondering how deer learn about cars for those I've seen lately are obviously aware that I am a good thing to avoid.
OK, admittedly a lot of deer fail to grasp this lesson. The losers pile up at the sides of our highways . . . and who doesn't have a story or more about their accident, the damage done to the car, and of all the stress of maiming or killing such a lovely animal. If it would just stay where it belongs.
Woodchucks also come to mind as an animal who loses too many family members to highway catastrophes before learning sets in to preserve the others.
Is it really learning? Or simply luck?
Watching the deer of the past week leads me to favor the first explanation. Only then I can't help but picture a deer classroom, the old school seats of my youth with the desk attached to the seat ahead, deer fannies plopped down, front hoofs on the desk and eyes straight ahead on the teacher, garbed in his academic gown with such pride in that huge rack of antlers. He points to the blackboard as the lesson is stressed: stay away from automobiles. Next time he plans to deal with buses and motorcycles, keeping the secret of bicycles for the final lesson. ("Go for it, kids. This one you can win!")
If there is no classroom must we believe every wise deer has had to learn the harshest lesson individually from experience? Birds know to disappear as the hawk circles overhead. I guess the only animal who doesn't seem to wise up is the chipmunk for they continue to spring my Hav-A-Hart with no sign of growing wisdom, even when Cousin Louie is still very much alive inside.
Is it strictly instinct? Some readers I'm sure would argue the case.
Animals certainly have learned to be wary of us humans except for the pesky ones who find the gardens and other temptations worth the gamble. Yet I read of idyllic places still existing where animals show no fear, strengthening the supposition that fear has to be learned. Or it is the trust that has to be drilled into them? I can see equal logic in that.
Which brings me back to my deer-y classroom.
Actually, I think we'll need one huge academy for all the animals with lessons to learn: cats to avoid dogs (and while mine accepts her two dogs, she's wise enough not to be friendly with any others), dogs to avoid cars (the lucky ones) and eventually, the dogs (and deer!) to stay off the ice as fluctuating temperatures ultimately will rise.
Experience may be the professor with tenure. Memory exists without question. But I like to believe there is even more involved, that animals can communicate and teach each other.
They're certainly great at teaching me!
Susan Crossett is a Cassadaga resident. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org