It’s eight o’clock in the morning and I’ve just arrived at the commissary to start my work day. Inside the doorway, I pause to pull a pair of blue medical gloves from their box on the wall and work my fingers into them. On my way to the back of the room, where the silver industrial-sized refrigerators sit, I spin a handle that starts water pouring into the sink. After plugging the drains, I squeeze out a generous gob of yellow Dawn, preparing a soapy soak for the dishes that will come in later. I’m pulling the buckets of lemur food out of the fridge when Jim ambles through the door. Never one for a simple hello, the white-haired man says, “How goes the battle,” in a voice a little louder than necessary. I know he’s only here for primate biscuits. Sure enough, he crosses to the gray Rubbermaid bin in the center of the room and pops the lid just high enough to get his hand in. Clutching a fistful of the compressed corn and fiber logs, he shuts the lid again and goes back out the way he came in.
The biscuits in Jim’s hand, although designed for primates, aren’t going to the free-ranging lemur troop that hangs out in the compound. They’re going to feed Vinny. Vinny is an elderly white-tailed deer with one floppy ear. He’s standing outside with a few other bucks and a young doe, all waiting expectantly for the commissary door to open. They’re nearly always out there, sometimes stepping cautiously up onto the deck and peering in the window. It’s not always the exact same group of deer, but Vinny is always among them. As Jim holds out his hand, the creature, droopy ear fringed with engorged ticks, steps forward and crunches down on a biscuit. It’s the first of nearly a dozen meals he’ll get that day.
Strictly speaking, we’re not supposed to feed the deer, but it’s clear Jim isn’t the only one who likes to toss Vinny the odd biscuit or scrap of apple. All of the compound deer are remarkably tame. Some will even come up and nudge me when I’m not looking, urging me to give them handouts. Most of the time, I refrain. I know feeding wild animals never ends well for the animal. How many plaques have I seen up in Estes Park, warning that it’s illegal to give peanuts to the ground squirrels or at Memorial Park, advising the public that bread isn’t good for ducks? Ultimately, it’s a selfish act. For the experience of interacting with animals, people are often willing to sacrifice the animals’ health and safety. Usually, it doesn’t occur to them that a bag of Doritos isn’t the best diet for chipmunks. But, I have to confess that, every now and then, carrot tops and pear stems don’t find their way into the trashcan when I’m chopping veggies.
It’s hard not to feel fondness for the deer on St. Catherines. On my first day, I was delighted to see them up close and personal, big brown eyes reflecting my outstretched hand. I’d never been so close to one before. When I arrived, the males didn’t have antlers yet. Now, they’ve all grown bony protrusions on their heads, still robed in velvet. They started sprouting in April and it has been remarkable to see them start out as little, fuzzy nubs and branch into pointy ornaments. Occasionally, they butt heads in brief scuffles, locking racks and pushing each other back and forth. It’s best to get out of the way when that happens. Even though their heads (not including the antlers) come up just above waist high, one of these deer could still hurt me if it wanted to. They’ll lose those weapons come October, when mating season is over, and start a new set next year.
Most visitors to the island have similar reactions to the deer. At first, it’s all oohs, aahs, and that sound some people make when they look at photos of their coworker’s new baby (I think Vinny likes that sound; it means he’s going to get another meal). Then, if they stay long enough, they start to notice that our deer aren’t particularly healthy. It’s not their small size that makes them unwell - island dwellers like deer are often smaller than their mainland counterparts - it’s a lack of genetic mixing. Put in plain terns, their mates are often their siblings. One result of this inbreeding is that many of St. Catherines’ deer are what’s known as piebald, a mutation that causes them to have large white patches of fur and is linked to some diseases.
A group of students recently came to the island from their university, Sewanee, in Tennessee, to study ecology. Two of them - Lindsey Sikorski and Tory Beth Surratt - noticed a few things about our deer and let me sit in on their class presentation. They took a rough count of the deer and tried to learn what portion of them was unhealthy. The two students came up with a deer density of five to ten deer per square kilometer, with around fifty more deer in the compound than elsewhere on the island. Using visible ribs and a dull coat as indicators, they reported that about thirty percent of them were unwell. The girls also taught me a new word: crepuscular. It means that when they’re not getting lemur biscuits and apple scraps, the deer forage for their food at dawn and at dusk.
One reason so many of the deer aren’t doing well could be not only lack of proper diet, but lack of being part of anyone else's diet. There are no predators left that might munch on a deer. Alligators might get the occasional fawn but nobody else around here has a hankering for venison. Ages ago, when we had friars and soldiers, about 86% of what they ate was deer meat. The deer were here long before people were, getting trapped on the island when it split off from the mainland. Back then, there were black bears and maybe bobcats who kept the weak ones out of the population. Eventually though, people hunted the bears here to extinction and brought in their own livestock to eat. These days, the sick linger and the closest the deer get to veterinary care is when my roommate pulls the ticks off of Vinny.
As unfortunate as the situation sounds, it's not all doom and gloom for the St. Catherines Island deer. The lush fields and cool forests still provide plenty of natural food and the habitat is free from the threat of commercial development. Since the island is the foundation's private property and the animals are pretty small, we don't have to worry much about poachers taking the healthy animals. With all of the scientists and students who come to learn about the wildlife, it won't be just Lindsey and Tory who take an interest. For now, they'll continue to delight the children who have never seen a deer up close and help the next interns with kitchen cleanup.