Saturday, June 12, 2010

Dede and Heidi

Jane B. Cravan
November 14, 2009

Dede and Heidi
At our house in Tuxedo Park, New York, we always have many animals in our backyard.  Mostly, we have deer. Some people hate them because they eat their flowers and shrubs. We hear our neighbor  shouting through the woods sometimes, “Get off my property you horrible deer!  I want to kill you!”, when he sees them trying to devour his wife's beautiful lilies.  Other people, like our family, love the deer because of their beauty and liveliness and try to plant things the deer can eat without damaging the appearance of their property or things the deer do not like to eat like forsythia and box wood.  My mother told me when I was very young that we were lucky to live in the woods and be so close to the woodland creatures.  I asked her “why” and she told me “God has never created anything as beautiful as these animals and we’re blessed to have them as our closest neighbors.”  Because no hunting has ever been allowed in Tuxedo Park, there are virtually no predators who can harm the deer.  They seem to grow like wildflowers and every spring brings a wonderful new herd of spotted fawns to the area.  My family and I always look forward to seeing the first wet-looking, spotted newborn deer taking their first awkward steps with their mothers and siblings looking on.
Our backyard consists of six acres of land. We have not “improved” or changed anything there.  They are basically untouched natural woods.  A stream runs through our property and we also have a very tall tree that is badly damaged high up its body by a lightning strike that happened on a very stormy night during a Nor’ Easter. This tree is still alive, even though the top is severed at a sharp angle and it no longer grows. No new leaves come in the spring. Many bears, possums, raccoons, birds, frogs, chipmunks, squirrels and other animals live on our property. The word “Tuxedo” in Tuxedo Park, which most people think of as a man’s formal suit, actually comes from a word in the Lenape Native American language meaning “bear” or “the place where bears live”.  All day and all night we can hear these animals moving around and living their lives. 
In the night, every night, we can also hear all of our twelve indoor cats running around in our kitchen, knocking down pots and pans and upsetting plants.  Sometimes from my bed I hear my Mom or Dad saying “pipe down” to them.  Our neighbor has a dog named Bruno who barks all night (sort of like his master, who I actually like a lot) and always keeps me awake. The air in Tuxedo Park smells very clean and fresh, especially compared to the air in New York City where we used to live. Because we feed the cats who come to our back terrace, you can also smell the odor of the cat food. We have a garden on our back terrace as well.  Animals with a better sense of smell than we humans have also can probably smell the flowers, vegetables, and fruits we grow every summer. We feed the birds who live in the trees and have a bird feeder and a hummingbird feeder, which the bears, squirrels, chipmunks and birds also enjoy. Both of the bird feeders have a strong aroma that we cannot smell from a distance, but other animals can and it attracts them to our house.  Sometimes I think I hear the animals speaking to each other and to us.  I know they are saying “thank you” for the food we give them.
It is always very cold in the winter in Tuxedo Park because we are in the Ramapo Mountains. This year we have had a lot of snow and ice, more than usual. It has been so snowy that our cars are often buried under the snow until we cannot see them anymore. My Dad and I need to dig them out, which takes hours
This winter we have been surprised by the sight of a strange-looking kind of ugly and ungainly female deer (i.e., no antlers) who has come to our bird feeder.  She has a long face, a very muscular back, and extremely thin and spindly legs. Upon first seeing her, my mother tells me “Jane, she’s a big one, but she’s definitely young -- about one or one and a half years old.   You see, she has lost her fawn spots.” What is most obvious about this deer is that she appears to be very badly wounded between her neck and left shoulder, probably by a bow and arrow hunter.  Her wound is infected and filled with pus. Dad and Mom both say to me “Jane, don’t feel bad, but we think she probably won’t make it through the winter.  She looks very, very ill.”  I answer them “Oh no” and I’m filled with sadness and dread.  Clearly, the ugly deer seems to be in pain and quite miserable, as if every step will be her last.  I have never seen a weaker, more pathetic animal.   
The strange-looking, ugly deer still has some of her winter coat on, which is a dark brown, and she still wears some of her light brown summer coat. The fur around her wound looks like a bird molting and cannot be a sorrier, sadder sight.  Mom, Dad and I decide to call her Heidi.
We have a small group of healthy, active deer on our property, a team of about eight who are all female.  We are used to seeing all of them on most days. All of their fur is dark brown. This winter, there has been so much ice and the snow has been so deep that we can never believe that the deer can keep their footing when they walk through the woods and through the property. We humans slip and fall all the time.
The deer move in a line with a matriarch deer at the back.  We hardly ever see male deer because they don’t come close to people the way the females do.  The matriarch deer has a broken ear.  We have known her for years and call her Dede.  Dede looks like she is about six or seven years old and she is very majestic and commanding.  She is every inch a leader and when she looks you in the eye, she seems to be saying, “You can deal with me”.  You can tell that all the other deer look to her for guidance and strength.  While they usually look timid and scared, Dede always looks strong and sure.  She is also quite friendly to us, unlike the rest of the deer.  It took a couple of years for us to develop a bond, but Dede usually comes right up to us and looks us in the eye.  We feed her bread out of our hands (Wonder Bread; my dad told me that “it builds strong bodies in 12 different ways” according to a famous commercial), but we throw bread to the other deer, which they love. They will definitely eat as much bread as we are willing to throw them.  At night the deer family all curl up together as a group in our woods for warmth.  It is amazing to watch our deer family.
Heidi keeps coming back and coming back to our woods, though her horrible wound hasn’t improved over the course of the winter. We try to monitor her, but it has been so cold, no person can ever be outside for more than a minute.  Everything is frozen this winter, including the little stream that runs through our property.  We look through the back window of our house and see Heidi trying to get in line with Dede’s deer family.  She seems to be saying to them, “Please, please, let me walk with you”.  They never let her get near.  Instead they just chase her away. This goes on for a while.   
One day, we are surprised to see Heidi walking a few feet behind Dede’s family.  What is Dede thinking?  Deer families are very close-knit and never admit outsiders or socialize with other deer families.  Even though we feed Dede’s family and Dede eats from our hands, we know that we are outsiders and not family members.  Is Dede thinking that maybe she can be kind to Heidi or be willing to offer her help to a sick deer who is not part of her family?  We are curious and hopeful, but have no way of knowing because we cannot converse with them.
Soon after this, perhaps a couple of days later, we see Heidi in the deer family line, with Dede the matriarch deer behind her.  This astonishes us.  When we see Dede next and feed her out of our hand, we try talking to her about this because we feel we know her and can sometimes possibly read her thoughts when we’re together, and that she listens to us when we speak.  Dede’s face and expression say clearly to us “I have decided to accept Heidi and be a mother to her as I am to the rest of my family.  Heidi is now part of my family.” Heidi now begins to sleep with Dede’s herd and they keep her warm all winter.
In the spring, Heidi’s wound finally heals.  The healing is gradual, but before we know it, it is complete.  Dad says “it must be the Wonder Bread” and he and Mom laugh about it a lot. Mom tells me “I have been watching those the commercials since I was your age.  I always knew there must be something to them.”  Heidi suddenly grows antlers.  It turns out that Heidi, the strange-looking, ugly female deer, is actually a very handsome male deer!  Maybe the female group knew this all along and were afraid of him, but we think that Dede’s wisdom, maternal sense and deep kindness has prevailed and that she has instructed her family to take Heidi in.  Heidi is now one of the family and they have saved his life.
Now that it is not cold anymore, my family and I go out and feed Dede and Heidi. Unlike the other deer, they are both brave enough to eat the bread out of our hands. We go out and feed them every day and in their way they both seem to be saying, “Hi” and “Thank you”. 
 Heidi remains with her new family and is especially close with Dede.  They are always peaceful and loving. For whatever reason, once the deer family accepted Heidi, he remained accepted. We come out in the evening or early morning and Heidi is curled up, sleeping with his new family.
We think Heidi wanted and needed help desperately and Dede and the deer family helped.  Dede made a choice and took a chance on Heidi.  We think that in the end they truly all love each other and that humans are not the only animals capable of love and kindness.



  1. Hi Aliki. Thanks so much for writing. This describes something that actually happened. It was quite incredible. Curtis

  2. I have a couple deer that always come to my backyard too. This inspired me to name them :)

  3. That's great. What are their names?

  4. Coconut and Pineapple (I was feeling like tropical fruits that day)

  5. Those are lovely names. Deer are very sweet, shy and gentle creatures who are related, as you probably know already, to horses. It can take a while to get to know them and it's really a right place/right time thing. In Tuxedo Park, this family really lived on our property, which they felt was large, secure and "theirs". We would look out the window in the evening and see them sleeping together in our woods. We were lucky. We are headed up there today and look forward to seeing the new fawns, although sadly the situation there has changed and it's not the deer paradise (meaning from our perspective, human paradise, at least in this one respect) that it was once.

  6. We love your tale, Jane.

    Your use of the present tense is clever, enhancing drama, suspense, surprise.

  7. We love your tale, Jane.

    Your use of the present tense is clever, enhancing drama, suspense, surprise.

  8. Dear Tom,

    My Dad just showed me your note.

    This was an English assignment that I worked very hard on.

    It's an absolutely true story.

    Thank you for what you said. Your note means a lot to me.