Saturday, August 29, 2009

A Book Which Should Have Stayed Hidden

I've written my first one star Amazon review, and the winner is The Hidden Life of Deer by Elizabeth Marshall Thomas. Marketed as a naturalist's observations of deer, the book winds up being more of a defense of feeding them and hunting them. Here's what I wrote.

If spoilers are possible for a non-fiction book, there are a lot of them ahead to explain my strong opinion.

Welcome to the first one star review I've ever given. I didn't plan it that way; I thought it would be interesting to read something about deer from a non-hunting perspective, and I was just going to take the feeding as an unpleasant given without comment.

But the author spends so much time trying to justify her feeding the deer that it's impossible to not write about it. The attempt at justification of a primate feeding deer relationship is very poor and the author surely knows this. The fact that langur monkeys in India eat only parts of leaves and chital deer wait beneath the trees to eat what's dropped is completely irrelevant to putting out hundreds of pounds of corn.

Ultimately, her stated reason for feeding them is that they are individuals who want to live. To fully appreciation my opposition to her behavior, you need to understand that I live by that principle more than the author does--I don't eat animals, don't believe in using them for entertainment or experimentation, and I don't support hunting them. I've been a wildlife rehabilitation volunteer, and I occasionally toss something out the window for squirrels or crows or whoever wants it and enjoy watching them eat. In short, I completely understand the desire to feed them and if deer existed in a vacuum, I'd say feed away.

But of course they don't exist in a vacuum and her choice has far-reaching consequences, from directly depriving other animals of the food which would have been provided by predation and scavenging of weakened and dead deer, to the later destruction of rare plant life and ecosystems by the resulting overpopulation of deer. Anyone able to view things objectively can see what the overpopulation of the human species has meant to other life forms.

She cites one example of seeing a deer with claw marks which she hypothesizes came from a bear, and wonders with pride if her corn gave the deer the strength to escape. If it did, shame would be a more appropriate emotion for anyone who actually cared about nature as a whole. And of course by feeding the deer in a year of low acorn production, she's directly undermining the reason why there are years of low acorn production. Even the deer themselves attempt to override her feeding of them when the strongest prevent the weakest from eating.

In any case, the fact that deer are individuals who want to live apparently doesn't matter to the author when it comes to hunting. She declares that she'd rather be shot than killed in a slaughterhouse as if it's an either/or choice when in fact neither one has to occur. And then goes on to mention overpopulation as a justification for hunting even as she contributes to that overpopulation.

Although she claims that she has no interest in taking a life, she eagerly goes along to watch a hunter do so, and after he kills a deer he doesn't think is good enough for him, agrees to his suggestion that she lie and claim she killed the deer so he can kill another bigger one. This from someone she considers one of the best hunters, a man who elsewhere in the book she prevents from killing an injured bear who then lives for many years, a man she also criticizes for painfully dragging a deer who'd been hit by a car into the woods instead of shooting the deer on the spot. Considering her claim that the will to hunt is deep in our psyches, I suppose we should all be amazed that the overwhelming majority of people don't do it. Or maybe her claim is just nonsense.

Most of what she writes about the deer is as much imagination as observation which was OK but is there anything actually good in this book? Yes, there's a page about scat which is well-written, and the last chapter of non-deer related nature anecdotes was good enough that I was going to boost my rating up to two stars. Then I came to the epilogue where she declares she's going to keep feeding the deer as long as she's alive regardless of conditions. One star is being generous for the way this book left me feeling.


Allan Stellar said...

Some strong feelings...

I knew farmers who would not pick a few rows of corn up all winter for the deer. The exchange would be that they would take a couple deer during the hunting season.

I feel more strongly about people driving too fast in rural areas. The deer don't stand a chance against a car. I wonder if more deer are killed by cars than hunters? I suspect that answer is yes...

Anonymous said...

Well-written review, should deter people from buying the book.

Anonymous said...

I'd never thought about the rights or wrongs of feeding deer, probably because I have never been in a position to decide. I wouldn't have thought through the consequences the way you describe them, so I'm glad I read this post.

Question: why did the hunter drag the wounded deer into the woods from the road? What was the point of that, instead of putting her out of her pain on the spot?

Anonymous said...

If I remember correctly, I think there were some young people there. So he didn't want them to see him shoot the deer which was obviously in pain lying there and then in more pain while being dragged along the ground. Somewhat understandable, but if killing a wounded deer is something you need to hide, what makes shooting a healthy deer OK?

Anonymous said...

There's another why putting out corn for wild deer is idiotic. It can end up killing them. Check out this article from a local newspaper here in Southern Oregon